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Unhinging Horror: An Anxious Response to the “madness” of Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

By Sean Moreland

This post is, in part, a personal and very tendentious review of Ari Aster’s film Hereditary, and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. As such, it contains a number of spoilers for both, so caveat lector.

My response to both is shaped by broader concerns with the long and troubling history of representations of “madness” and “mental illness” in popular horror fictions (literary, cinematic, and televisual). In this respect, it is motivated in part by a panel I recently participated in at CanCon 2018, Ottawa’s s annual speculative fiction convention, titled “Horror and the Problematic Portrayal of Madness.”   On this note, keep your eyes on this space for a forthcoming continuation of that discussion with my co-panelists, Nathan Caro FréchetteTonya LiburdDavid Nickle, and Derek Newman-Stille.

This post is also in part a personal discussion of the relationship between anxiety, depression, grief, and the pleasures and problems of horror spectatorship from the point of view of a lifelong “horror fan” whose fandom (or, to use my colleague Aalya Ahmad’s preferred term, “fan(g)dom”) has, for better or worse, shaped my work and interests as a literature and film scholar, professional educator, and occasional writer of poetry and fiction.

It should be noted that throughout this piece, I bracket both the terms “madness” and “mental illness” (which often mean very different things). In doing so, I do not intend to erase the realities, struggles, joys, sufferings, or triumphs of those who identify with these terms, or who have had these terms forced upon them. Rather, to mis-paraphrase a silly song, I want to hold these closely in quotation marks, while signalling that they do not, and probably cannot, have a neutral, transparent, cross-cultural or trans-historical meaning.

First, Hereditary.

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I saw the film during its theatrical run with my wife and a friend. My wife enjoyed it, jumped at the jump-scary scenes, and was untroubled by it otherwise. It was, in her estimation, a “good horror film,” although not a great or especially original one. My friend and I, on the other hand, who both live with levels of anxiety that sometimes become difficult to manage (or function socially and professionally through) and who both consider ourselves to be horror film “connoisseurs,” began having the prodromal symptoms of an impending panic attack by the mid-point of the film.

These, for me, peaked during the family dinner scene. The tense, unbearably emotionally fraught conflict between the members of the Graham family too closely resembled and amplified some of the most painful and confusing conversations I’ve had with family and loved ones over the years.

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The guilt, resentment, helplessness, and next to total breakdown of effective communication between them massively spiked my anxiety. In light of the film’s conclusion, it becomes clear that none of the characters are talking about primarily what they think they are talking about during this scene. This retrospective dramatic irony encapsulates how Hereditary ultimately unhinges its own apparent representations of “mental illness,” an unhinging echoed by much of the critical conversation around the film (i.e, “it’s ridiculous to criticize a film’s representation of mental illness when it is ultimately about demonic possession!” or “to say anything positive about this film is literally to attack and erase those who live with mental illness!”)

During this scene, I was on the verge of having to walk out of the film to try to get my heart-rate down, my circulation to extremities going again, and my mind from buzzing with a shit-tonne of awful anxious ideation.

Shortly after this scene, things started to slide seamlessly into spectacular and undeniable malevolent supernaturalism. Corpses in the attic becoming re-animate, spontaneous human combustion, menacing apparitions blossoming like spring flowers, acephalic ritualistic tableaux… an eruption of Grand Guignol that gave me a crashing, cathartic sensation of relief as my panic transmuted into a far more pleasurable feeling of weird familiarity – “right, I’m watching an over-the-top supernatural horror film, OK, I can just enjoy this for the delirious spectacle that it is becoming,” and my desire to walk out of the theatre ended.

That feeling is pretty much what I experience any time I am able to re-direct my rising anxiety and evade an impending panic attack (by vigorous exercise, long walks, meditation, pet-bonding, self-medication, absorbing my attention in a film sufficiently to ease the circulation of my thoughts around the painful rapid pace of my heart and strain of my breathing, or some other means.) As my heart-rate lowers, warmth returns to my extremities and my vision stops whiting out at the edges, a kind of quiet elation sets in; some kind of psychic disaster has been averted. My reaction to Hereditary emphasized for me that part of my life-long attraction to horror films stems from their ability to create this kind of catharsis, which, when it works, is hugely helpful to me in managing and transmuting my anxiety. Indeed, one blogger has written of understanding the film as being “about” anxiety itself, and therefore useful in understanding their own experiences living with it.

Because of the degree to which the first half of the film, with its cultivation of the “horrors” of “mental illness,” emotional trauma, and excruciatingly dysfunctional family relationships generated anxiety for me, its sudden and inevitable slide into flamboyant supernaturalism was anxiolytic. For many viewers, however, the moment this kind of dread dissipates is the moment the film either loses much of its power, or becomes unforgivably problematic. It has elicited what I think are some of the most incisive criticisms of the film. As one blogger puts it, Hereditary

“is ugly. At its core is a journey of abuse, grief and mental illness which posits that there is no good way to cope when one’s world is torn apart by any of these things. And as it goes on it morphs into a visceral, soul-crushing experience merged with  bits of genre conventions that will have horror geeks patting themselves on the back  while others will be left unsure how to feel about the whole thing.”

There is some truth in this assessment of the film. Given how heavily reliant, and lovingly referential, Hereditary is toward its horror-cinematic and literary inspirations (as opposed to the lives and fate of its characters) there is something to the idea that it fetishizes its conventions at the expense of its characters.  However, I’m troubled by this writers’ characterization of the film’s reception being polarized between “horror geeks” (there is a long history of pathologizing Gothic and horror fictions, and those who create or consume them, in particularly gendered and classist ways that lurks behind a statement like this) and the rest of humanity (who are, presumably, more “humane,” or “sensitive,” or “sane” than those “geeks.”)

Lena Wilson puts it in a way that doesn’t automatically pathologize anybody who enjoyed or appreciated the film, while still underlining its most crucial problem:

“The literal destruction of their grieving family unfolds with dreadful inevitability, as both Annie and Peter ultimately die by their own hands. Their deaths, despite paranormal influences, can be interpreted as suicide, in light of the film’s overt references to mental illness. Despite ever-evolving diagnoses and new forms of therapy, the stigmatization of mental illness in our society is alive and well.”

Many critics have responded to the commercial success of and considerable critical praise for Hereditary by pointing out its lack of “originality.” As a review in The Economist puts it,

“Viewers may not guess every specific—because the specifics are wonderfully bizarre—but the sinister conspiracy plot is far less surprising than the one in “Get Out”, for instance. It is less original and resonant, too. The film sometimes pretends to be a classical tragedy about bereavement, motherhood and mental illness, but with its regular scares and its rudimentary plotting, “Hereditary” is fundamentally a hokey Halloween haunted-house chiller, complete with spooks, séances and people who are foolish enough to run upstairs rather than out of the door when they’re being chased.”

I wouldn’t argue with the claim that Hereditary is less original than Jordan Peele’s Get Out (that masterful film sets a tremendously high bar!) On the contrary, I think its relative lack of originality is part of what makes it so disturbing; it uses its generic precursors to produce a sense of fatalistic inevitability. That’s one aspect of Freud’s otherwise-superseded theory of the uncanny I think still holds water – that the feeling of the uncanny is always rooted in a disturbing familiarity.

Often the most disturbing films are the ones that do all-too-familiar things, just a little differently. I didn’t find Hereditary especially “original,” but I sure didn’t find it “hokey.” Had more of its audience felt this way, it would surely have disturbed, unsettled, or disgusted far fewer of them, myself included, and would clearly be a less divisive topic for discussion.

But it is certainly much more concerned with using its narrative and effects to create a sense of dreadful fatalism than in exploring in an open-ended and psychologically dynamic way the lives of its characters. The unfortunate members of the Graham family are all, ultimately, revealed to be little cogs in a massive sensory-affective machine designed to do nothing so much as generate a feeling of inescapable doom. This unflinching, relentless focus makes it both a powerful horror narrative, and a dangerous and distressing (non)portrayal of “mental illness.”

Nor does Hereditary “pretend” to be a “classical tragedy.” It’s pre-texts are not primarily Oedipus Rex or The Bacchae. They are, rather, classic psychological Gothic tales, from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Maupassant’s “L’Horla,” through to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In each of these fictions, a particular psychological disposition or state is inextricably linked to the inevitable destruction of a character or characters. In short, Hereditary‘s strengths, like its “sins,” are practically constitutive of this mode of horror.

Poe’s  “Usher” is, I think, an especially apt point of comparison for Hereditary. It is a story that literally incorporates many phrases and images and ideas from earlier work, using them to create a sense of excessive familiarity and mechanistic inevitability. It banks on its readers’ prior familiarity with the conspicuous tropes of Gothic fiction  to achieve its effects. The crumbling ancestral mansion, which will collapse at the conclusion, in an obvious echo of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, as the “crack” emphasized throughout the tale reminds its readers, bringing the Usher family, prey to neurotic afflictions and phobias, crashing down with it.  The symbolism in Poe’s tale between the haunted house, cracked and irreversibly collapsing, and the “mad” mind is forceful, and intricately interwoven into every sentence of the story, each element setting up the inevitable doom of its conclusion. Its “human” characters are automata, parts of its fatal machinery.

Given the massive scope of the tale’s influence, “Usher” is a crucial text for any consideration of the role “madness” plays in modern horror, and its influence is in no way limited by the lack of originality in its elements. For “Usher” is a Frankenstein’s monster of  stitched-together parts. Poe lifted elements from a hundred prior sources for it, many of them Gothic fictions; Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (which similarly marries “madness” to both heredity and fate), Sir Walter Scott’s translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat,” the structure and conclusion of the Grandfather of the Gothic, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and even Mary Shelley’s novel itself. The work he designed this re-organized engine to perform is the production of a singular effect; a powerful, intricate sense of passive wonder and horror in the face of inevitable doom.

Richard Ingram, who is credited with coining the term “Mad Studies,” writes that “mad studies–written in the lower case–has existed in many different times and places. For example, I see Nietzsche as a forerunner of Mad Studies. I think he was one of the people who was continuously writing about his own struggle with madness in his philosophy, before eventually being psychiatrized.”

The same could certainly be said (and has been said) of Poe, who was posthumously translated into a “madman” by Rufus Grisworld, romantically valourized as a martyr of madness by Baudelaire, and treated as a posthumous subject for literary-clinical investigation by Freud’s pupil Marie Bonaparte, among countless others. To what extent did Poe’s tales “problematically appropriate” the “madness” of others for commercial exploitation? Do what extent did they codify and propagate the proto-clinical ideas of James Cowles Pritchard and other Victorian psychologists by embedding them in a hugely influential and highly compressed literary form, casting even contemporary mad-perceived or mad-identified folks (including viewers of Hereditary) under the vampiric shadow of long dead physician-philosophers? And to what extent are they, instead, in Ingram’s words, products of and testaments to Poe’s own “struggle with madness” (which need not mean Poe’s struggle with “insanity,” or with “mental illness,” or with “latent dementia praecox,” or “sublimated psychopathy” resulting from “sexual inversion.”)

Hereditary similarly exploits its own generic over-saturation to generate and/or discharge tension in audiences. Like “Usher,” it synthesizes this generic determinism (the tendency that unifies all of its cinematic influences and conventions) with the idea that “madness” is a fatal sentence (whether it is understood through the lens of “mental illness”, or fatal supernatural machinery.)

Horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who often works in this mode, has described his own fictions as “a matter of personal pathology,” expressive of, and possibly therapeutically related to, his own lifelong experience of debilitating depression and anxiety. He describes this mode in his essay, “Consolations of Horror.” Speaking of “Usher,” he asks, “Did you ever wonder how a Gothic story like Poe’s masterpiece can be so great without enlisting the reader’s care for its characters’ doom?”

Ligotti contradicts analyses that cast empathy and emotional mirroring as the primary basis for horror fiction’s appeal – such fictions “work,” some would have it, because we “identify with” and “believe in,” and therefore feel alongside, their characters (for elucidations of this idea, see, for example, Noel Carroll’s classic study The Philosophy of Horror, 1990, and more recently, Mathias Clasen’s evolutionary psychological account of horror’s appeal in Why Horror Seduces, 2016.)

Ligotti proposes instead, “Unlike a horror story whose effect depends on reader sympathy with its fictional victims, this one doesn’t want us to get involved with the characters in that way. Our fear does not derive from theirs.” Despite its fundamental violation of this widely touted explanation of horror’s appeal (has any reader, with the exception of Antonin Artaud, strongly identified with and seen themselves accurately  reflected in one of Usher’s characters?) “Usher” is widely recognized as among the most effective and influential horror tales ever written.

Ligotti suggests that “Usher” is so effective because:

“we don’t look over any character’s shoulder but have our attention distributed god-wise into every corner of a foul factory which manufactures only one product: total and inescapable doom. Whether a given proper noun escapes this doom or is caught by it is beside the point. Poe’s is a world created with built-in obsolescence, and to appreciate fully this downrunning cosmos one must take the perspective of its creator, which is all perspectives without getting sidetracked into a single one.”

Why are readers (at least, readers like Ligotti, and to some extent myself) drawn back to Poe’s tale, then? What kind of “pleasure” does it offer? Ligotti claims “the consolation” that “Usher” offers readers “is that we are supremely removed from the maddeningly tragic viewpoint of the human.”

This was also a large part of the weird aesthetic and emotional catharsis of Hereditary for me. At a certain point, I was freed from identifying with its human characters, their traumas, griefs, emotional sufferings too recognizably close to my own, and therefore generative of almost-unbearable anxiety.

Perhaps this sort of pleasure is more likely to be experienced by those with certain depressive and/or anxious tendencies?  While I’ve never been labelled with a clinical diagnosis beyond depression and general anxiety,  I experience many of the tendencies associated with a schizoid personality ( as a therapist once pointed out to me, though “a personality style and a personality disorder are not the same thing.”). So, seemingly, do most of the strange, nebulous personalities that narrate Ligotti’s fictions. So do many of Shirley Jackson’s literary characters, including Eleanor of Hill House, with whom I have closely identified since first reading the novel at the age of 12.

Both Ligotti’s fictions and Hereditary seem to offer particularly schizoid resolutions to the anxieties of trying to negotiate emotional suffering through the fraught and confusing complexities of too-intimate interpersonal relationships.

Are these tendencies in me part of what made Hereditary‘s hinge so anxiolytic? Might it make sense to talk about such fictions as “schizoid horror” (extracting that term from its more restricted clinical use, while questioning the authority and consistency of its clinical conceptions themselves)? Or is this instinct to label and categorize likely to tend back toward pathologization?

Some viewers didn’t think Hereditary “owned” or “earned” the hinge whereby its “madness” swung from “mental illness” to “demonic occultism.”  I think, narratively and structurally, it did.  Nevertheless, Hereditary‘s hinge, its shift from “a family history of mental illness,” “DID,” “schizophrenia,” and “trauma” to “PAIMON!” and Phallocentric Goetic theurgy involves a very literal erasure of “mental illness,” along with the (illusory) psychological autonomy of its characters.

This is especially troubling to me because that hinge was the one on which my anxiolytic catharsis (as opposed to my appreciation for its ability to build and maintain anxiety and grief) depended. But I’ve been, in part, conditioned by many prior fictions to recognize, and appreciate, the smooth swing of that hinge, for it is hardly unique to Hereditary.

It is closely paralleled by many films that “bait” the audience with apparent representations of psychological alienation, and then switch them out for a paranormal reality, whether wonderful, horrible, or somewhere in between (from The Return to Oz through The Sixth Sense to Donnie Darko, it’s a common device.)

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Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House series uses a similar hinge, although to different effect.

I have a lot of admiration for Flanagan’s series in general; it is in so many ways a beautiful, aptly haunting thing. Where Aster’s film is a love-letter to many different horror films (probably none more so than Polanski’s  Rosemary’s Baby, however), Haunting is clearly a loving email (a sometimes meandering and sentimental one) to both Shirley Jackson herself, and to Stephen King (whose own early literary tributes to Jackson are marked by similar meandering and sentimental tendencies.)

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It resects and re-stitches aspects of Jackson’s novel in fascinating ways. It also, ingeniously and defiantly, uses the expectations of viewers (like myself) who know and love the novel to mislead and re-direct attention. Where Hereditary uses its allusions to foreshadow and reinforce its viciously fatalistic vision, Hill House uses them to expand upon while departing from its source material. Their respective temporal structures emphasize this difference. Hereditary traps viewers claustrophobically in the present perception of the Graham family, while revealing that present to be merely an illusionary ignorance of how the past has already determined the future.

Hill House draws heavily on the analeptic structure King is so fond of using to explore the relationship between “adult” and “childhood” experience. It’s a structure especially evident in his novel It, which seems an important source for Flanagan’s series. The series uses this structure, entirely different from that of Jackson’s novel, to distance itself from the plot of the novel, and to displace its chilling conclusion, even while having Steven Crain’s (the homophony is no coincidence) character directly quote from it. In the series, the unhinging of the main characters from mental illness, and their suspension instead from the supernatural threat represented by the house (a threat redolent of King’s revision of Jackson via Lovecraft in Salem’s Lot and The Shining,) contains at least the possibility of freedom. Heredity, here, either familial or generic, need not be fatal.

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Initially, the series’ nominal echoes of, but characterization and structural departures from, the novel bothered me. But it unfolds its differences from the novel with increasing fluency and impact as it proceeds, opening spaces clearly suggested by many of Jackson’s writings (and, of course, King’s). For example, one of the scenes that initially irritated me involved Eleanor’s famous “cup of stars” dialogue being transposed so that Mrs. Dudley delivers it to Nell, who is still a child. Up to that point, Mrs. Dudley (portrayed with impressive rigidity, which even more impressively dissolves later in the series, by Annabeth Gish) has seemed very much like the character of the same name in the novel, and it made no sense to me to place that quintessential speech in her mouth. But, like all the characters in the series, Mrs. Dudley is a far cry (in the night, in the dark) from herself in the novel, and the series eventually “earns” this transposition in a very poignant way.

However, as well as Kingly meandering, the series strays too far into soap operatic, gothic melodrama for my tastes.  So many scenes of women in long, flowing night-gowns wandering, imperilled, through the palatial house at night! Daphne du Maurier, get thee behind me!

Yes, there is an aspect of that in Jackson’s novel (and yes, it was amplified by the novel’s marketing and most of its covers in the 60s and 70s) but part of what makes her novel stunning is its stark paring-back and exposure of the underlying psychological mechanisms of the gothic romance.

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The Internet is rife with responses to the series that emphasize, earnestly or otherwise, its fright-factor, ability to induce fainting, vomiting, etc. Some of these seem more like a William Castle-esque viral campaign than “authentic” self-reported responses to the series, but I have no doubt that many viewers were truly disturbed or triggered by some of its scenes.

I didn’t do any of those things (although I did cry a few times, and got a few solid startles.) But there were a few moments in the series that had my anxiety rising into concerning territory (one advantage to Netflix being that I can turn the thing off and come back to it when I’m calmer.)

All of these moments centred around Nell’s character. As I’ve already said, I’ve felt a kinship with the novel’s Nell, a lonely, longing, somewhat schizoid and Quixotic character since childhood. Her counterpart in the series (portrayed by Victoria Pedretti) really resonated with me.  Her distraught phone calls to her family the night of her death, their belated realization that they weren’t there for her when she called, their guilt that they didn’t do enough to help her…. I had trouble sitting through that. It’s the kind of thing I dread having to face on a daily basis.

Strangely, though, it was the series’ portrayal of Nell’s sleep paralysis that most disturbed me.  Those scenes very closely resembled by own experiences of sleep paralysis, particularly those that occurred when I was in my teens, before I had any idea what I was experiencing. I was terrified to talk about those experiences with anybody, because I was convinced they were indicative of either impending death or “going crazy.”

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I experienced such “hag attacks” occasionally for many years, generally during periods of acute anxiety. The first episode occurred when I was 17. It wasn’t until I took an undergrad psych course 2 years later that I read about the phenomenon.  The relief was overwhelming. “O THANK THE GODS, IT’S JUST SOME KIND OF MINOR NERVOUS SYSTEM GLITCH, I’M NOT EXPERIENCING DEMONIC OPPRESSION OR HAVING A SERIES OF STROKES OR DEVELOPING A PSYCHOSIS!”

The scene in which Nell describes her symptoms to a sleep technician, who later becomes her husband, who reassures her that they are normal, and normally harmless, really resonated with the relief I found at that revelation.

Sometimes, I take comfort in thinking about my nervous system, and my personality, as simpler and more mechanically reducible things than they are, things that could be “fixed” by some kind of minor “tweak” (thus my fondness for claiming that my most cherished literary works “pare back and expose” various “underlying psychological mechanisms,” a phrasing grounded in a particularly functionalist, and therefore probably ableist, conception of the mind, and one I often find it difficult to think outside of.)

But I want to come back to that narrative mechanism, that structural hinge, whereby throughout the series, most of the characters (and to a lesser extent, the audience) are led to believe their strange and tragic experiences result from a familial tangle of, probably hereditary, “mental illness,” “cognitive disorder,” or “emotional dysfunction…” all of which is ultimately explained by the cosmic threat presented by the soul-hungry house they had the misfortune of moving into (at least it isn’t a giant child-eating space-spider.)

Where in Hereditary, this hinge swings into a closing scene of delirious grotesquerie, in Hill House it opens the door on a curiously triumphant celebration of love’s posthumous persistence that clashes sharply with the resounding final paragraph of Jackson’s novel: “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

King’s voice rings clearly in Flanagan’s revision. In the series, none of the Crains are, ultimately, alone, and none of the Crains are, ultimately, “mentally ill.” The narrative reinforces their father’s insistence that what they had come to believe were delusions, hallucinations, and paranoiac invasive thoughts were merely mis-interpretations of their relationship with a reality in which there are “more things than are dreamt of” in bio-medical psychiatry. “Mental illness” ceases to exist; the only “madness” was in denying that such preternatural (to use Steven Crain’s preferred word) threats were real.

Despite this supernatural King-ification, there’s a way in which this is also a response to the role of “madness” in Jackson’s work itself.

There are many distinct parallels between Jackson’s textual representations of psychological alienation and the ideas of contemporaneous anti-psychiatric writers including R.D. Laing. Laing interpreted a wide variety of conditions, including notably schizophrenia, as being caused by social (and, with typical casual misogyny, especially maternal) influence. To reductively simplify, Laing thought insanity was a sane response to insane social pressures, including those imposed by “schizophrenogenic” mothers. This is a concept evident throughout Jackson’s work, and that of many of her horror-writing contemporaries, including Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Charles Beaumont (“Miss Gentilbelle.”) Laing’s views have been largely rejected by neurobiological psychiatry, although some of his therapeutic experiments arguably influenced contemporary socialization-focused approaches. But they were influential in Jackson’s time, and probably inform the way that both mother-figures and traditional societal influences function as an external menace, very much like a supernatural threat, in so many of her stories (as, certainly, does her own troubled relationship with both her mother and husband.)

This leads me to the importance of sociologist Kathryn Church‘s caveat that “Mad studies doesn’t reject medical models of madness [but it puts] them into a historical trajectory, one that shows that psychiatry isn’t an absolute interpretation of human mental states.”

I think fiction can play an important role in delineating those trajectories, and that the way “madness” functions in the work of particular writers, film-makers, and artists (often quite removed from any supposed clinical or psychiatric “reality”) can be very revealing of this.

But it is unclear to me where fantastic, and especially horrific, fictions that darkly mirror certain “human mental states” fit into this crucially important historical and political examination. Is transforming the phenomenology of a deeply troubling “human mental state” into a fictional world in which it is the expression of very different conditions and physical laws ever NOT troubling, and potentially dangerous? Is it potentially a useful way of challenging the de-historicized absolutism of medico-psychiatric diagnosis? Are these prospects always, or ever, mutually exclusive?

Hill House’s closing scenes were, for me, hugely cathartic, but in an entirely different way from Hereditary‘s. The latter left me giddy and disturbed. The former left me crying, but somehow comforted.

Hill House is “sad horror,” surely, but also loving, humane, hopeful horror. My experience of it, my appreciation for it, is no doubt in part because I’m grieving the sudden loss, a couple of months ago, of my mother, who first invited me in to Jackson’s Hill House.*

The feeling of loss, and of the felt presence of an absent, and much-missed, loved one (unmoored from any religious or metaphysical belief in an afterlife) is fertile ground in which the desire for the supernatural can grow. It’s a large part of my emotional reality these days, and may have made me especially responsive to the series. Hill House gave me an aesthetic outlet for grief, one intensified somehow by transient fright. But does that change its troubling transfiguration of “mental illness” into supernatural menace?  Does that unhinge it in a potentially revelatory way? Does that necessarily make it less effective as a work of “horror?”

These are, at least to me, open questions, open doors, and I’m not even clear what kind of hinges their answers might swing on.

 

 

* I was about 12 years old when I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its high praise for Jackson’s novel. I was talking to my mother about it, and she realized she owned a copy as part of the abridged Reader’s Digest book series she subscribed to, which we both read and talked about, so the novel is caught up in my memories of my Mother in stark contrast to the way Eleanor’s, and Jackson’s, mother’s shadow hangs over the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PSTD AUTHOR INTERVIEW: MIKE ALLEN

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Read the reprint of Mike Allen’s story, “Tardigrade,” and poem “Dearly Beloved”, accompanying this interview.

Hello Mike, and thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions as part of our PstD author feature. To start off, can you tell our readers a little about who you are, what you do, what you’ve written, what you’re writing, what you’ve edited, what you’re editing?

What counts as a little? I can try for a little of each.

Let’s see. By day I work as a newspaper reporter. (Yes, newspapers still exist! And do excellent, necessary work.) In my spare time I write, edit and publish science fiction, fantasy and horror. I’m almost 50 years old. I grew up in a couple of out of the way places and still live in a (slightly larger) out of the way place, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. I married my best friend, Anita, a little over 26 years ago.

I had interests in many different kinds of art as a kid — drawing, music, poetry, fiction, acting — and not much else, which put me at odds at times with my farmhand-turned-college professor-turned-computer programmer father as I got older, right up until I landed the newspaper job.

But since I was small, my greatest aesthetic interest has been the literature of the fantastic: reading it, writing it and eventually even publishing it. Like everyone else in the biz, I’m always grabbing at the next highest rung on the ladder, but I feel incredibly lucky to have pulled off the stunts I’ve managed so far.

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I sold my first story in 1992 to a long-forgotten pay-in-copy zine. In the first two decades of my sci-fi career, I plunged really deep into speculative poetry. There are three big fat (for collections of poetry) books that hold the bulk of those adventures (though not all of them!), containing about 60 poems each: Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (2006), The Journey to Kailash (2008) and Hungry Constellations (2014). Hungry Constellations deserves a little extra explanation: Dominik Parisien edited that one, selecting what he thought were the strongest pieces from Strange Wisdoms and Journey to Kailash, then adding a section of new stuff.

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All along, I wrote more short stories, but I produced them less frequently than the poems and sold them even less frequently, so it took a while for them to build into a body of work. I had my first breakthrough of a sort in 2005, when a wacky novelette I co-wrote with Ian Watson, “Dee-Dee and the Dumpy Dancers,” appeared in Interzone, and a bigger one three years later when my horror story “The Button Bin” became a Nebula finalist. Still, when my stories appeared they never tended to attract much attention, so when my debut collection, Unseaming, came out, and it ended up being a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and selling several thousand copies, no one was more surprised than me! My followup collection, The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories (weird sci-fi and fantasy rather than horror) didn’t make as much noise.

I’ve had one novel published, The Black Fire Concerto (Haunted Stars, 2013). It’s a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy with music, magic, flying horses made of wood and hordes of ravenous undead, and I’m personally quite proud of it, but few people know it exists. I have another dark fantasy novel that’s currently seeking a home, cross fingers. A completed first draft of a sequel to Black Fire Concerto rests on a back burner. I’m in the foothills of another novel set in the present day that I think of as Lovecraftian noir. I’m  also assembling a horror story collection that’s a follow-up to Unseaming, working title Aftermath of an Industrial Accident.

Though I’ve made inroads as a fiction writer, I think more people still know me as a poet or as an editor. (A fact that can make me gnash my teeth sometimes, heh.) I never dreamed, as a kid, of being an editor, how that came about would double the length of this already long answer.

My editing career has three major threads. There’s the anthologies, the highest profile of which is the Clockwork Phoenix series, intended as a home for difficult to classify stories with sci-fi, fantasy and/or horror elements. The first three volumes were originally published by Norilana Books, but I have all the rights to those now, and I edited and published the fourth and fifth volumes myself. Several stories from those books have been Nebula, Shirley Jackson and WSFA Small Press Award finalists and the most recent volume, Clockwork Phoenix 5, was a World Fantasy Award finalist last year.61l90Oo-gjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Then there’s the magazines. The obvious one to mention here is Mythic Delirium, which I started in 1998 as a biannual all-poetry journal. Eventually I switched from print-only to digital-only and started including short stories.  This year, we published the 50th issue of Mythic Delirium, which also happened to be the 20th anniversary issue, and with that I put the zine on hiatus.

The third thread is books. I’ve dabbled in editing and publishing books by other authors for years — the first one was The Lexicographer’s Love Song, a poetry collection by Ian Watson, put out by DNA Publications in 2001. Things got a bit more serious when Anita and I decided to release Bone Swans, a collection of five novellas from C. S. E. Cooney, through our Mythic Delirium Books imprint, and even more serious when Bone Swans won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. (We were there at the ceremony, and so was Claire Cooney, the announcement that she had won was a wonderful surprise.) The current project on deck is Latchkey, a novel by Nicole Kornher-Stace that’s sequel to her YA debut Archivist Wasp. Officially that launches July 10, 2018. There’s a couple more in the works I’m not ready to go public with yet.

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

I think it all boils down to Poe and Tolkien, the first is probably kind of obvious, the second I imagine less so for any readers out there that might know me only through my creative work.

Those two writers set me on the path. A well-meaning third grade teacher read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” to our class for Halloween, and while the other kids just giggled it away I was traumatized, with night terrors that lasted for years. Yet instead of staying away from all things horror, I became consumed with morbid curiosity, constantly coming back to this type of story-telling that held so much power over me, leading me to devour stuff by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker.

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Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” inspired “night terrors that lasted for years.” (Harry Clarke’s 1919 illustration.)

With Barker, my favorite writer when I was in my teens, I experienced a paradigm change. I became a gleeful participant in the land of imaginary horrors, rather than a frightened victim. I ended up consuming so much horror that I essentially inoculated myself from the night terrors.

I would bet the idea that I’m best known for horror stories would be a big shock to 10-year-old me. Around 4th grade or so my dad made me read The Lord of the Rings, because he thought it was the greatest novel ever written and because he was sure I would like it. On that second part, absolutely, he was right. Maybe the first one, too? But anyway, I developed this hunger for all things Tolkien. We lived at the time in Wise, Virginia, a coal town high in the Appalachians. There was no bookstore. There were a couple of other kids who liked fantasy, but didn’t share my obsessive need for it, or at least not my precise interests — as I recall, one buddy was a huge Larry Niven fan.

There was no fandom community in Wise. My parents enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy but were not particularly knowledgeable about what was out there. So I was on my own figuring out how to find other books for that fix.

The library in Wise became the center of my world. I got my mom to mail order a book of essays on Tolkien, and I’d track down the books mentioned there. My parents gave me a book that was essentially lists of recommended reading for teenagers, and I ignored everything except the chapter on science fiction and fantasy in the very back. Those two sources led me to C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Susan Cooper, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Anne MacCaffrey, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Michael Moorcock, and led me to do things like read Le Morte d’Arthur.

I imagine 10-year-old me would have expected 45-year-old me to be writing epic fantasy instead of body horror. As an adult, though, the writers who have been real revelations to me, who’ve stirred primal surges of imagination — Thomas Ligotti, Brian McNaughton, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn — have all tended to lean toward horror. I started at some point to find epic fantasy tiresome. I blame Robert Jordan.

Generally speaking, in my own writing, I try to emulate what inspires me. When I was writing The Black Fire Concerto for Haunted Stars, I made a deliberate choice to aim for the kind of wild, gonzo, big-scale surreal events found in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Rod Belcher, a.k.a. dark fantasy novelist R.S. Belcher, who also lives here in Roanoke, read Black Fire Concerto and correctly deduced that there’s a huge slab of Zelazny slathered in there too. 51UT0Rh9qxL

I’ll slip direct homages in too. My short story “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” from the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology contains a huge shout out to Thomas Ligotti’s “The Cocoons,” though when Tom read it himself, he didn’t notice. (I couldn’t resist pointing it out to him.)

Right out of the gates, then, you were drawn to the “literature of the fantastic,” and both your writing and editing has circulated through this broad field. Yet, as you suggest, to the probable surprise of your young epic-fantasy-fanatical self, much of your prose fiction could be, and often has been, described somewhat more narrowly as “horror.” The label is especially often applied to your 2014 collection Unseaming, which deservedly earned rave reviews in venues including Rue Morgue Magazine, where it was favourably compared to Clive Barker’s short fiction. In his introduction to Unseaming, Laird Barron locates your work at “the forefront of a ‘New New Wave'” of horror.

It was awful nice of Laird to write that!

What importance does the term “horror” have for you? Do you find this to be a congenial way to describe some, or all of your writing? What are some of the (dis)advantages of being perceived, or self-representing, as a horror writer?

I love horror. Left to my own devices, my first choice for entertainment will usually be a a collection of horror stories or a horror film. (You wouldn’t necessarily glean that from the stories I gravitate toward as an editor, which tend towards the ornate and surreal. It’s a quirk even I don’t completely understand. Though my favorite films of all time aren’t horror films: Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Wild Bunch.)

I suppose horror permeates a lot of my writing, even when I don’t intend it deliberately. I’m drawn to the downbeat, to impossible choices, irreparable damage and mortifying fates. Those moves are more conventional in horror, though sf and fantasy stories, especially short stories, definitely sport their share. (Some of the short stories I encountered as a kid that really stuck in my craw, like “Descending” by Thomas M. Disch or “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” by Shirley Jackson, feel like horror stories even if they don’t read like them in the conventional sense.)

I’m not shy about calling myself a horror writer, because people grasp what that is, and I believe, though you don’t find horror sections in bookstores anymore, it’s become a much more acceptable thing to trumpet in this pop-culture saturated 21st century. I spent more than a decade trying to explain to people what a “science fiction poet” is — compared to that, saying “I write horror” goes down pretty smooth.

As you note above, your 2016 story collection, The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories instead collects fiction oriented more toward sci-fi and fantasy. Perhaps as a result, it doesn’t have the same tonal and thematic concentration that marks Unseaming. In her introduction to the collection, Nicole Kornher-Stace portrays this as the “throwing down of a gauntlet to anyone who so much as thinks of pigeonholing the versatile body of work of which Mike Allen is capable.” Was that a gesture you were consciously making? What effect do you think it had on the book’s reception, or your perception by readers who knew your name mainly through Unseaming?51kys+sHfgL._UY250_

The lesson I learned with The Spider Tapestries is that readers who buy horror want more horror. I’m not a complete fool, though: I never expected a slender volume of intensely surreal science fantasy works to keep pace with Unseaming, where the weirdness all falls within horror parameters. (I’d be a liar, though, if I claimed I wasn’t hoping for it!)

What Nicole wrote (again, super-kind words) about me throwing down a gauntlet was true in the creation of the individual stories, not as much in the assembly of the book. For example, the ending of my novelette “Sleepless, Burning Life,” in which (spoiler alert?) I run through all the possible consequences of Jyshiu’s next, story-concluding choice, then don’t tell the reader what she did, was 100% deliberate author malfeasance. In “Twa Sisters” I set out to see how far I could push treating science fiction prose like concrete poetry. (In that sense it’s an homage to Harlan Ellison’s “The Region Between,” at least in execution if not in subject matter.)

The base raison d’etre for the book might seem pretty dull: I felt I needed an additional reward option for the Clockwork Phoenix 5 Kickstarter campaign, and it occurred to me these stories left out of Unseaming might work well together.

An aside: I’d been playing with and shopping around various versions of Unseaming for years. Anita, who has for many years organized the contents of our zine issues and anthologies so that they have a thematic flow, also organized Unseaming. Laird once suggested to me that I should be willing to toss in stories from other genres (see his own sf story “Ears Prick Up” in his collection Swift to Chase) but Anita felt the book should hew consistently toward horror, and I must admit I’m grateful for her instincts.

But with any luck, readers will continue to discover The Spider Tapestries and be surprised by the things I spring on them.

Kornher-Stace’s calling your body of work “versatile” is, if anything, an understatement. Having read a broad swath of your published writing at this point, I’m awed by the range of voices, modes, forms that comprise your corpus. There are a couple of things, however, that seem to me quintessentially “Mike Allenesque” characteristics, and I’d like to ask your thoughts on these.

The first is a fascinated, and fascinating, emphasis on visceral metamorphoses, one that sometimes causes your work to swing close toward what I would describe as  “body horror” and the grotesque. Amal el-Mohtar’s introduction to Hungry Constellations phrases this in a particularly vivid way when she writes that Mike Allen “is a man who delights in breaking bodies: butchering, splitting, splaying, dismembering, then seeding landscapes with viscera until they too become bodies—bodies invaded, bodies studied, bodies contaminated. This is a man who carves words into and out of bodies, be they skin or sapphire, corpses or constellations. But somehow Allen skirts gore and clinical detachment both: there is a precision and an economy to his horror that’s reminiscent of clockwork, architecture, astronomy.”

There is something in her characterization of a precision that is more aesthetic than clinical, a grotesquerie that is more architectural than, to paraphrase Stephen King, “going for the gross out,” that cuts to the heart of your work, I think.

 What do you think of this characterization? Why do you think you “delight in breaking bodies” in these ways?

I’ll admit, I was taken aback at first by Amal’s description, but after some contemplation I had to concede it was a fair cop. It’s there in my earliest published work, back in the 1990s.

My best guess: it’s an accumulation of factors. My father taught biology at the University of Guam and later at Clinch Valley College in Wise, and I remember, on visiting his offices and classrooms, being fascinated by the large plastic anatomy models — you could open them and remove the internal organs, the pieces of the brain, the eyes, you could open the heart up and look inside it. Also all the strange creatures from many phyla floating in formaldehyde, and the even weirder invertebrates described in textbooks. I never did get to see the biology department’s cadaver, but I knew it was there inside its coffin-shaped tank. Somehow, though, none of these things ever scared me the way Poe or Lovecraft did.

And yet, I would have these astonishing nightmares, incredibly vivid, where streets would be lined with veins and intestines and people would suffer gory fates worthy of the grossest splatter films — which I had never watched! As a kid, when something too scary came on the television, I’d flee the room. Those dreams, I’m certain, guide my aesthetic as an adult.

I mentioned Barker sparking my own transformation. I think The Books of Blood connected parts of my mind that weren’t consciously working together, the part fascinated with the wilds of biology and the part terrified of but unable to look away from the body under the sheet (as King so eloquently described the love of horror in Night Shift.) Movies like Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Reanimator served the same purpose in a much cruder way. And of course there was Carpenter’s The Thing.

Those sources have a lot of literal partitioning and repurposing of flesh. Once you venture into poetry, though, where the metamorphoses can be simultaneously literal and metaphorical, things really get fun. From there, I guess that’s how I get to stories like “Monster,” where you have a serial killer who’s also a math equation.

The second, and closely related “Mike Allenesque” characteristic that threads through most of your work, even at its darkest, its most violent, and grotesque, is a certain celebratory quality, a rapt reveling, an almost rhapsodic delight in the linguistic expression of entity and being, no matter how agonized, entropic, or abject.  I wonder if this delight is related to what Thomas Ligotti has characterized as the  “fun” underlying your writing. In his words, “ not ‘good’ fun, and certainly not ‘good clean’ fun,” but “laughter in the dark—unnerving, serious laughter.” 

What, for you, is “fun” about your work?  What is serious? What’s the difference?

This is really challenging to answer — but thank you for asking!

All of it has to be fun to some degree, or why do it?

At my littlest, way back in the haze of the first things I remember, my favorite toys were letters of the alphabet. I think that continues in a love I have for wordplay. I often end up pruning back that tendency in the finished product so it doesn’t distract from the narrative, though I can’t resist leaving alliteration and internal rhymes here and there.

The notion that “demented” and “entertaining” can be synonyms arose in my teen years. There were all those 1980s horror movies that were both scary and funny. Those were also the years, much to the chagrin of my parents, that I discovered my love of heavy metal. For some, these teen passions fade, but for me, this particular one never has. The music could trigger these crazy fugues of imagery that spouted from a similar vein (so to speak) as those super-intense nightmares I had when I was younger. My story “Let There Be Darkness” is basically a transcription of one of those fugues, inspired by Slayer’s “South of Heaven.”

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“Let There Be Darkness” is inspired by Slayer’s “South of Heaven.”

The story in Unseaming that is pure fun-for-fun’s-sake is “An Invitation via E-mail,” which has occasionally been dinged for being shallow and mean-spirited compared to the other stories. So be it, it’s short and fun to read aloud.

Beyond “demented,” there’s “disturbing.” My favorite novels when I was young tended to be books like The Lord of the Rings and later The Chronicles of Amber, that swept me up in the grandeur of their inventions. The short stories that stuck with me the longest, though, were the ones that disturbed me, like “Pickman’s Model” or “Descending” or “I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream.” So when I am writing, I have this real Imp of the Perverse impulse to aim at recreating those experiences for whomever ends up being my reader. I can even experience a kind of “Eureka!” glee when I sense that I’m on track toward that goal. I think Tom was able to peer with laser precision through the words and perceive the Imp at work.

All the above makes it sound like none of this is serious for me, but there are things I’m deadly serious about. My anecdotal sense of the world we live in is that we humans lie to ourselves all the time about how good we supposedly are, that we’ve constructed a society that at best pays mere lip service to what’s good and at worst actively punishes the selfless while rewarding the selfish. These notions, and the anger they inspire, also inform my writing, though not in a way that’s intended to convey a prescriptive message.

While we are back on the subject of Ligotti, you’ve mentioned your admiration for, and an homage to, his work above. Can you elaborate about your reception of his work? What aspects of it have influenced your writing, and how? How did Ligotti come to read and review your collection Unseaming?

I’m not 100% certain whether the first thing I read by Tom was “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” in David Hartwell’s Foundations of Fear anthology or whether it was Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I recall finding Grimscribe in a bookstore (it had a blurb comparing him to Barker, an instant hook for me), then soon after special ordering Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

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A Clive Barker blurb atop a portrait of Megatherion introduced Ligotti’s oneiric entropy to some…

His stories have a dreamlike quality that hit me where it hurts so good. By the time I encountered Ligotti’s works, I was a huge fan of all things with a Lovecraftian echo, and I appreciated how he shifted cosmic horror into psychological and metaphysical realms. Grimscribe is full of spectacularly creepy stories, like “Nethescurial,” which features an ending that’s both terrifying and darkly hilarious. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, my poem “No One” sincerely flatters that story.

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The late, lamented David G. Hartwell’s seminal collection introduced it to many others….

I think my world view might be at heart just as dark as his, but whereas his is articulately thought out, mine is more of a gut reaction, or a reaction involving guts, perhaps?

The short answer to why he wrote me a blurb: I screwed up my courage and asked him. Longer context: from 1999ish to 2005, I was a volunteer editor with DNA Publications after they moved from Massachusetts to Floyd, Virginia. Publisher Warren Lapine made my poetry zine, Mythic Delirium, part of the DNA stable, which meant it became a sister magazine to Weird Tales, which at the time was regularly publishing new Ligotti tales. (Including one of my absolute favorites, “Purity.”) Generally speaking, at DNA I learned that getting “name” authors to participate in things really involved pulling one’s grownup pants on and asking, because they’re not necessarily going to say no. (Though if they do, don’t argue, take no for an answer.) Specifically, I first reached out to Tom to see if he’d contribute to a project, and though he declined, I shared my poems with him and he had nice things to say. I was grateful to find the door still open as Unseaming came together.

Back in 2014, while PstD was still a paper journal and Dominik Parisien was our poetry editor, your poem “Dearly Beloved” was the featured poem in our 5th volume. I’m curious, first, about why you enlisted Dominik to curate and edit the selection in Hungry Constellations. In her introduction to the collection, Amal el-Mohtar characterizes him as more of a collaborator than editor – is that a fair assessment? What was that process like?

Dom had made the mistake of telling me how much he admired my poetry, and demonstrating some familiarity with it beyond just stumbling across a poem or two on a website hither and yon. A dangerous thing to do!

Like The Spider Tapestries, Hungry Constellations has mundane origins. When I ran the Mythic Delirium Kickstarter in 2013, I offered as one of the rewards an omnibus collecting all of my poems. When it came time to put that together I had second thoughts. We writers love all our babies to some degree, but some of my published poems I’m just not super-excited about including in a book intended as a showcase.

I selected and ordered all the poems in my previous big collections, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead and The Journey to Kailash. It occurred to me that making this next book a “new and selected poems”-type volume would add esthetic value, but that would require enlisting someone else’s editorial vision. Though his super-successful editing collaborations with Navah Wolfe were still in the future, Dom’s interests in and knowledge of poetry and weird fiction generally and in my work in particular suggested to me he’d be a good choice, and bless him, he was willing to do it. (Worth noting, also, Dom had previously done editorial work for the Ann VanderMeer incarnation of Weird Tales, where “An Invitation via E-mail” appeared.)

I guess you’ll have to judge whether this sounds like collaboration. Essentially, I presented my entire twenty-odd-year accumulation of poetic work to him and asked him to decide what formed a coherent book. (Piece of cake, right?) I’m thrilled with the job he did. There are poems that I would have included if left to my own devices that he didn’t, and vice versa. Even at the very end, when I decided to make a couple additions to the “New and Uncollected Poems” section, I cleared them with Dom first and asked for his guidance as to where to put them. A fascinating final bit came when Amal was reading the book for her introduction and she and Dom discussed his choices, with me carbon copied on the messages. Amal recognized that Hungry Constellations was very much Dom’s creation, with me having provided the clay.

Hungry Constellations also fills what I perceived as a void: it’s my only poetry collection available in e-book form.

In the PstD 5 introduction to “Dearly Beloved,” you cite “the photographic montages of Italian artist Allesandro Bavari” as the inspiration for the universe that poem shared with your Locus-recommended stories “Twa Sisters” and Still-Life with Skull,” both of which were subsequently  reprinted in The Spider Tapestries. Can you tell us about the genesis and development of the world these fictions share? Is it a world to which you return, or will return, in more recent work?

My friend Patty Templeton came across Bavari’s work on an art blog she followed and shared it with me. I’ve never met or corresponded with Bavari so I doubt he knows what a debt I owe him, but his twisted photo collages were like slides from my most intense nightmares. He’s made short films, too, that are just as wild.

Nicole Kornher-Stace had issued me a challenge to write a short story the way I wrote poetry. She had use of language in mind, but I decided to bend those rules and take a stab at a story that imagined the surreal Boschian landscapes in Bavari’s images as real places, a technique I had used in a series of poems about 20th century artists called “Disturbing Muses.” That story became “Twa Sisters.” The story uses some concrete poetry techniques, too, which made it really hard to find a publisher, heh. (Bless you, Not One of Us!) I took a second stab at working in that bizarre world without the visual prose tricks, which became “Still Life With Skull.”

The series by Bavari that inspired me most bears the title “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Despite the elements of horror in some of those works, there’s also an anarchic pansexual delight that I fully incorporated into these stories, where sex, gender and physiognomy can be switched like jackets, so the notion that someone would be judged by their sexual orientation or appearance has become alien as the void. On the downside, I suppose, I also imagine this world as a place where all the constant, invasive surveillance we fret about here in the U.S. via NSA collusion with Google, Facebook, etc. is something that most everyone simply accepts as being as inevitable as death and taxes.

I’ve got a novelette sitting on the back burner, “The Threefold Feather,” that will probably be my final venture into this world. The first draft is finished. Someday, I’ll get back to it…

 In the same introduction you describe Bavari’s work as “visual speculative fiction masquerading as fine art.”  I love the characterization; can you say a little more about what you think constitutes visual speculative art? What is it about Bavari’s images that inspired this characterization? Who are some other artists whose work you’d align with the same category?

It’s part of what attracted me so much to his work: to me, regarding the photos in his “Sodom and Gomorrah” series seem very much like peering into a parallel word, where the rules of existence must be quite different from ours, and yet it’s easy to imagine that there are rules of existence, that these aren’t just abstract doodles.

Even as a kid I was drawn to art that had this feel. I frequently checked out a book on Salvador Dali from the Wise library for that reason. I’ve never based any of my own writings on his work, though — maybe it feels like too obvious a thing to do?

The works of Remedios Varo absolutely have that feel for me — somebody I may try writing a “Disturbing Muses” piece about her. I also had that feel attending the Wassily Kandinksy exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2009, which eventually begat the poem “Kandinsky’s Galaxy.” Through my day job as an arts columnist I from time to time encountered works by contemporary artists that also, to my mind, have this feel, such as painter Bill Rutherfoord or textile artist Beverly Semmes, whose photographs were the inspiration for the antagonist in my short story “Longsleeves.”

Also on the topic of inter-influence between visual and literary speculative art, your wife Anita, whose influence on your writing you often acknowledge, is an accomplished visual artist. Can you (and perhaps Anita herself) tell us more about the relationship between her art and yours? Some of the ways they feed into, and off of, one another?

I just discussed this with Anita a little bit. She can write, but prefers to draw. I can draw, but prefer to write. We definite can work together in a symbiotic way when the need requires. Most important of all, we get each other.

Anita is definitely an artist whose work can have that “view into another world” feel. Her one and only solo show to date, “Beyond the Borders,” held in 2015 at a gallery here in Roanoke, was a gathering of fanciful creatures and monsters, some small as your fist, others so big and heavy it took four people to carry them from the truck to the gallery. Her own background in biology, specifically horticulture, played into it. (You can see some of the creatures from that show on the covers of Mythic Delirium 1.3  and 2.3.)

And, much like writing and editing, the visual arts require lots of icky self-promotion and the willingness to keep wading forward through avalanches of rejection, and Anita’s not super-thrilled at the prospect of either, so she’s never pushed her art to the degree I’ve pushed my writing. In her own words, Anita gets weirded out by the prospect of the limelight and prefers the shadows. Even so, she’s pulled off some really cool things, like that solo show, and I’m hugely proud of her for it.

She has a painting called “The Forest Lord,” of a mythical deer with antlers like clusters of tree branches crowning its head, that really resonates with me on a level I can’t explain. A character inspired by that image appears in The Black Fire Concerto and then reappears in somewhat different form in “Longsleeves.” They’re not the exact same character; those fictional universes aren’t connected, at least not yet, but clearly they’re linked on some other level. “Longsleeves” is almost like a funhouse mirror inversion of Black Fire Concerto, and the reappearance of the Antlered Man is a big part of what makes that so.

As I formulated the first questions for this interview, I was a little shocked to learn that your zine, Mythic Delirium, was going on hiatus after having been a vital touchstone in the world of indie weird and fantasy writing for the course of its 20 year career. Can you tell us more about the origins and history of the zine, and, especially, why you’ve decided to shelve it right now?

First, thank you for the kind words!

I explained both the history and the decision in some detail in the editorial for the final issue, it’s tempting to cut-and-paste, but that would double the length of this interview. I’ll attempt the Cliff’s Notes version.

When I decided to start Mythic Delirium, I’d already done two projects as an editor, the anthology New Dominions: Fantasy Stories by Virginia Writers (1995) and the e-zine Event Horizon (1997-98), which nowadays is mainly remembered as a footnote to Ellen Datlow’s e-zine of the same name. I was interested in continuing my editing ventures but I wanted to do it in a way that I could afford in terms of both money and time, and I didn’t want to answer to anyone but myself. My idea for how to do this was to put out a biannual poetry zine, and those were the mundane origins of Mythic Delirium. I mentioned earlier that once I was with DNA, Warren Lapine offered to take over the publishing end, which is how Mythic Delirium became a sister zine of Weird Tales. So far as I know, Mythic Delirium was the only genre poetry zine ever to be in a position like that — it wasn’t distributed on newsstands, but it was advertised in magazines that were, and included in subscription packages. It helped the zine build up a large enough base that when we parted from DNA in 2005 (and Warren generously let us keep our subscribers), we were able to keep going on our own for a pretty long time.

Fast forward to post-2013, when we reinvented Mythic Delirium as a webzine that included fiction as well as poetry. I am as proud of this chapter of the zine’s life as I am of everything that came before. However, the zine made very little money on its own — the bulk of the support it got was essentially a side effect of the Clockwork Phoenix Kickstarter campaigns. My sense is that the field appreciated Mythic Delirium, but it was a passive appreciation; there were no flurries of social media excitement when new issues came out, and reviewers would for the most part ignore it. I was putting a lot of time into editing and formatting, and creating all those different e-book formats drained away time I could use for my own writing; there were nowhere near enough subscription purchases to justify paying someone else to do that labor. I had to coldly consider ratios of work invested vs. reward, and I concluded that, barring some miracle, I would end the zine in Spring 2018, giving it a classy farewell instead of just shutting off the hose. I at least got enough support to make that possible.

If I remember right, I reached that decision in 2016, and even before then it had loomed as a possibility.

Funny thing about me: I’m an agnostic, but I believe, perhaps irrationally, in guidance offered by serendipity. There were times, earlier in Mythic Delirium’s history, when I considered shutting it down, but something always happened that convinced me the time wasn’t right. This time it worked the opposite way: things that might have made me reconsider resoundingly did not happen. There were other things that happened, though–I’ll keep those details private–that made me happy I didn’t have much longer to go.

That knowledge also made me work even harder to make the final run of issues special. So I have no regrets.

We’re reprinting your short story, “Tardigrade,” as part of the feature. Can you provide us with a little context for the story – its inspiration, when and how you wrote it, what it is about the story you continue to find most effective or interesting, its prior publication history?

I started “Tardigrade” as a lark back in late 2013. At first, it was just a vignette meant to scare a friend of mine who I thought might squirm while reading about bad things happening to teeth, and who has a phobia of slugs. (The original title was “We Make Holes in Teeth,” the Cavity Creeps chant from the old Crest commercial.) That friend is pretty unflappable, and to this day I don’t know if they found that vignette the least bit scary, as I didn’t hear back after I sent it.

I love visual experiments in text, and in its first form the story was just descriptions of creepy Internet videos and the commands to activate them, though the notion that the things depicted were connected wasn’t as clear as I would have liked it to have been. The story want on the back burner for several months while I drafted The Ghoulmaker’s Aria (the sequel to The Black Fire Concerto) and when I came back to it I decided that for it to really work, we needed to see the person watching the videos. At that point it started to morph into “Tardigrade.” A couple months later I received an unexpected invitation from Jason V. Brock to contribute to his anthology A Darke Phantastique, if I could turn something around within a week (!!!) — I finished up “Tardigrade,” Jason loved it, and before the end of the year it was out in print, one of the few times I’ve had something snap together that fast.

Where else can our readers find your work (both online and in print) and, for those who are just beginning to explore it, where would you suggest they start?

If I might indulge in a radio show-style deep cut: if you’re interested in a varied sampling of my poetry, you can go to descentintolight.com and check out this entry, which links  to a series of posts I did for National Poetry Month in 2011 in which I reprinted 13 of the poems collected in The Journey to Kailash, and discussed in detail how and why I wrote them. I also did audio readings of each poem, which you can listen to if you enable Adobe Flash.

If you want more free samples, a number of my stories have been reprinted online or adapted into podcasts. Apex Magazine reprinted both my Nebula-nominated story “The Button Bin” and its novella-length sequel “The Quiltmaker.”  Wilson Fowlie’s reading of “The Button Bin”  at Pseudopod has been praised as one of the site’s best podcasts, period.  StarShipSofa has a reading I recorded of “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground”  that incorporates sound effects. Tales to Terrify has a great reading by C. S. E. Cooney of “The Red Empress,” the first chapter in The Black Fire Concerto. Setsu Uzume made a delightful recording at Podcastle of my new-ish story “The Cruelest Team Will Win.”

And there’s plenty more out there. Most of the books that I’ve mentioned remain in print and available through online retailers. The Mythic Delirium Books website  has links to most of the ones actively available, and my author home page has links to a few more.

Thanks, Mike, for sharing these generous responses, and this wealth of resources, with our readers!

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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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Poe Vs. Lovecraft Panel at FanExpo Toronto 2015

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: A POE TRIFECTA! nEvermore: TALES OF MURDER, MYSTERY & THE MACABRE (2015) POE (2009), CHILDREN OF POE (2008)

Over the more than 150 years since Poe’s untimely demise, there have been many anthologies themed around his life and writings, of widely varying emphasis and quality. While a few have focused on Poe’s legacy in terms of detective fiction, science fiction, or poetry, the vast majority have emphasized Poe as the grand-pappy of, and a marketing locus for, modern horror fiction.

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Two notable earlier 21st century examples are Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Peter Straub (Anchor Books, 2008) and Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (Solaris, 2009), edited by Ellen Datlow. Both these earlier collections hold a place of importance in terms of Poe’s continuing popular association with literary horror, but in very different ways. Straub’s anthology is a monumental tome containing over 600 pages of haunting stories by some of the late 20th/early 21st century’s most influential dark fictionists. The anthology’s title and subtitle, however, are probably the weakest thing about it. They clash misleadingly for a number of reasons.

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First, the word “new:” the careers of several of the writers whose work this anthology showcases, including Straub himself and the omni-prevalent Stephen King (whose story “Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is more reminiscent of one of Poe’s satiric extravaganzas than one of his horror tales) date back to the 1970s. Referring to Straub and King (and even Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti) as “new horror” in 2008 gives an inaccurate impression of what the anthology is all about. In fact, because I am a crabby pedant who is also tired of seeing Stephen King yarns that I’ve had in paperback since 1985 repackaged alongside new fiction, this almost prevented me from buying the book in the first place.

Rather than the showcase for new and cutting edge horror its title suggests, the anthology is more about rehearsing a lineage that supposedly runs from Poe through King and Straub to writers as diverse as Thomas Ligotti, Elizabeth Hand and Glen Hirshberg (an in-store perusal of the stories by these writers, by the way, was what persuaded me to buy the book after all.) The logic runs, I suppose, that they are all “new” in relation to Poe. What, then, about all those writers from 1849 to the 1970s, including, say, Shirley Jackson, or H.P. Lovecraft? They don’t feature in this lineage?

Second, the subtitle is misleading because many of the stories it includes don’t fit readily under the umbrella label “horror.” This tonal and thematic range, however, is one of the anthology’s greatest strengths. In terms of its more recent contributors, it covers a large, dimly-lit field, running from Ligotti’s “Notes on the Writing of Horror” (particularly Poesque in its fusion of cruel critical alacrity and cold, creeping dread) to Glen Hirshberg’s heartbreakingly poignant (but not, by most standards, “horror”) story “The Two Sams” (this collection actually served as my introduction to Hirshberg’s fiction, so was worth the purchase for that alone.)

My third objection to the anthology’s titular concatenation is that, despite its deft use of the uncanny and its powerful tone of “mournful and never-ending remembrance,” there is very little Poe-esque about Hirshberg’s story, and this is also true for a number of the other fictions in the anthology, including Straub’s own contribution. Perhaps the subsuming of a wide range of modern dark fiction to Poe’s supposed legacy may have had some marketing utility, but, despite the great strength of the individual stories it contains, it is ultimately for me the reason why, as a book, particularly one supposedly themed on Poe, Straub’s anthology falls a little flat.

Despite his extensive knowledge of literary horror and his admirable continuing attention to the emergence of new writers and new styles in the field, this is where Straub is sometimes lacking as an editor/anthologist, or as a critic and genre historian: his need to situate the work his anthologies assemble in terms of the late 20th century, quasi-realist New England dark fabulism he shares with Stephen King, and his need to fulfill the obligations of mass-market publishing. Ah well. Poe understood what bizarre bedfellows literary criticism and commercialism make better than most.

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Datlow’s Poe-themed anthology, on the other hand, would have been better served by the sub-title “the new horror,” as it showcases an array of newer work, much of it technically ambitious, delightfully transgressive, and thought, as well as sensation, provoking. It doesn’t vie for mainstream, mass-market appeal by the inclusion of “blockbuster” fiction, or make a somewhat fusty case for itself as “serious literature” the way Children of Poe does.

It is also not a collection of reprint-fiction gathered together under Poe’s umbrella, but a collection of original fiction, commissioned just for the occasion. Each story is directly occasioned by some piece of Poe’s writing, and is followed by an authorial commentary that reinforces the connection between the new story and one of Poe’s writings. It includes some of the finest examples of how overt pastiche, allusion, and homage can become transmuted by the right authorial hands into something amazing, unsettling and perversely new in its own right – and this, really, is what Poe himself did best in tales like “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Three of the best examples from the collection include John Langan’s perversely pedagogical “Masque of the Red Death” revision, “Technicolor,” Kim Newman’s brain-clawing corporate horror tale, “Illimitable Domain,” and Kaaron Warren’s Poe-tourism inspired “The Tell.”

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In many respects, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles’ recent nEvermore (Edge Publishing, 2015) taps a similar vein to that of Datlow’s Poe, and it does it with admirable deftness. The book identifies itself as “Neo-Gothic Fiction Inspired by the Imagination” of Poe. It features 22 stories, each of them explicitly inspired by and responding to one or more pieces of Poe’s corpus, and each prefaced by a brief comment from the author(s) indicating its point de depart in Poe.

One way in which the collection departs from Datlow’s is that the stories are usually shorter, and tend (with a couple of notable exceptions) toward the pulpier end of the Poe spectrum – they emphasize sensation rather than subtlety.

Another is that, rather than aiming for the kind of atmospheric horror that predominates in Poe, many illustrate Poe’s fusion of various literary modes with a very modern sort of horror. The introduction by Uwe Sommerlad stresses Poe’s “genre crossing” tendencies, emphasizing the close relationship between Poe’s hyperbolic hoaxes (“The Balloon Hoax,” “Mesmeric Revelation,”) and his absurd extravaganzas (“The Scythe of Time,” “The Man Who Was Used Up’”) his tales of adventure (“The Gold Bug,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), and those of detection (“The Purloined Letter,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), his tales of compulsive confession (“The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and his Gothic fantasies (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

Poe’s tendency to fuse these modes is something many of his readers fail to note (even one so acute and devoted as Lovecraft, who praised Poe’s “cosmic horror” while denigrating his satiric tales, failing to realize how intrinsically tied the two modes were for Poe, and how important this was for Poe’s proto-absurdist achievement), but many of the stories that comprise nEvermore adopt a similar tendency with a manic mixture of grue and glee.

Certainly, straight-no-chaser horror stories are abundantly represented. Christopher Rice’s “Naomi” is a chilling twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart” whose violent terror erupts from its hard-eyed portrayal of homophobia. Lisa Morton’s “Finding Ulalume” uses Poe’s “ghoul-haunted” musical poem to springboard a fast-paced piece of barrel-down horror. Richard Christian Matheson’s staccato “133” rebounds, ellipsis-struck, like a bullet off the side of Poe’s sepulchred “Ligeia.” Carol Weekes and Michael Kelly’s collaboration “The Ravens of Consequence” mirrors the cumulative effect of its source poem, building a textured eeriness that would make it at home amongst the stories in the Datlow collection.

Probably the most formally ambitious story in the collection is “Afterlife,” a collaboration between William F. Nolan, Jason V. Brock and Sunni Brock, which synthesizes aspects of Poe’s legend and biography with his late cosmogonic poem Eureka, putting the results under a kind of amnesiac erasure. The oddest inclusion in the collection is without a doubt a previously unpublished piece of Poe-inspired juvenilia by none other than Margaret Atwood, interesting more for its glimpse into the formation of one of Canada’s most important living writers than as a fiction in itself (for my money, Tennessee Williams’s teenaged weird tales were a lot more interesting.)

In terms of its resonant terror and linguistic control, nothing else in the collection can compete with Tanith Lee’s “The Return of Berenice.” Like one of Poe’s deceptively essayistic tales (“The Imp of the Perverse,” or “Murders in the Rue Morgue,”) it begins more as a periphrastic exposition of “Berenice” than a story itself. Following its recounting of that tale’s events, however, it builds upon them in describing the fate that awaited the unfortunate Egaeus after the end of Poe’s narrative. It is an apt sequel to what may well be Poe’s most horrific tale, and a worthy testament to the career of a writer of tremendous insight and power. Lee did much to open and explore the mythic and lyrical possibilities of fantasy and horror fiction, and deserves a “mournful and never-ending remembrance” of her own. In that spirit, I’ll close by quoting the last line of Lee’s story:

“Creatures of air and wind, we: vehicles, playthings of the gods.”

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