Tag Archives: horror fiction

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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GABBEH, BY GEMMA FILES

You can read the interview that accompanies this fiction reprint here.

***

The thing everyone who came by Ashad’s already knew was that Ashad’s Mumma was crazy, or getting there at least, so close she could probably kiss crazy as it went by.

Ashad’s family had been big once, back in Shah times. They’d come over to Toronto after the Revolution and spun one store into three, then ten. But last month the original store had finally closed, after a solid year of Going Out of Business sales. Condo people didn’t want rugs anymore—not gabbeh, not kilim. Not without a million assurances they weren’t supporting child wage-slavery, or that every fibre wasn’t somehow soaked in blood.

“But it is!” Ashad’s Mumma would put in, however—with a horrid sort of cheer—whenever Ashad’s Dad complained around the dinner table. Which was yet one more way you could tell how fast the old lady was going off, sitting there smiling so pleasantly with her filmy eyes half-closed, an elegant set of bones covered in fine lace wrinkles, ricepaper skin and a long silk dress, her silver hair still painstakingly pin-curled in the height of 1950s fashion. God knew what she did all day, up there in her room. The only person who could so much as have a conversation with her, far as Nazneen could see, was the cleaning lady-cum-attendant Ashad’s Dad paid to come in, Shecilia.

“Why yah got that rug up on the wall, nah the floor?” Shecilia demanded. “Jus’ look at the dust on it! Pitiful, how yah treat an heirloom like that; thing fallin’ to flinders almost, that’s a fact. You need tah let me take it down, run the vacuum over it a time ah two, ‘fore it draw moths.”

But Ashad’s Mumma just shook her head. “Out of the question,” she said. “It is not to be touched—everyone here knows so.”

The rug in question was a gabbeh, thick and coarse-woven, probably almost an inch in depth, ninety by one hundred fifty centimetres. Its pattern was mainly grey on green on brown, squares on rectangles on stepped diamonds, with small, intensely red blocks and triangles scattered throughout—oddly drab yet strangely natural, its variegated colours breaking up in sub-textures like skin or sand, even the veins of dry-crisped autumn leaves. And while Nazneen thought it unlikely Ashad’s Mumma had had anything to do with its actual manufacture, she still had to give the old lady props for interesting taste.

Gabbeh

“Gabbeh,” illustration by Carrion House

 

“Why for nah, yah crazy old hen?” Shecilia demanded. At which Ashad’s Mumma’s eyes just narrowed further, an odd sort of cunning creeping in, and wouldn’t say, at first. Not with Shecilia around.

“Can you keep secrets, Indian?” she asked Nazneen, in a whisper, after pulling her aside into her room.

Nazneen’s parents were from Pakistan, but she didn’t see the point in correcting someone this old, let alone this crazy. “Depends,” she replied, instead.

“Well, it makes no matter, probably; I must tell, before I die.”

The upshot was—and Nazneen couldn’t believe she was even telling Ashad this, later on—that the reason the gabbeh had to stay on the wall, potential moth damage notwithstanding, was that if you put it on the floor, you might step onto it (duh). And if you stepped onto it… you fell in.

“In where?” Ashad asked, eyebrows hiking.

“Oh God, I don’t even… the Zagros Mountains, maybe? Or somewhere near Shahr-e Sukhteh, the Burnt City?”

“Those places are nowhere near each other, Naz.”

“Look, I don’t know. Besides which, apparently you end up sometime else, not just someplace. This day back whenever, when a whole village was wiped out.” She nodded at the gabbeh. “That’s the grey and green, in case you’re wondering.”

“How can you even tell?”

“You can’t—everything has to be done all geometric because no representation, right? I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff.” As Ashad shrugged: “Point is, if you know what the gabbeh’s theme is, you can sort of work out the story. Better yet, you have your Mumma to explain it to me, so there you go.”

Ashad peered at the gabbeh, not quite close enough for contact. “Dad says Baba ran off with a loose woman after the third store opened, because Mumma was so hard to live with. He says his friends saw them out in Mississauga at some fancy nightclub that doesn’t exist anymore, eating pork and drinking.”

“Yeah? Well, she says he’s that little red blotch, there. The one that doesn’t look like a triangle or a square.” Ashad did, frowning. “Says he must’ve fell right in the thick of it, and how that would’ve been a real bad day to be on the ground, because that was the day your family came in and killed everybody over—salt, or something. Something like that.”

“Salt was probably worth a lot, back then,” Ashad said. “Still is, right now.”

“In Iran?”

“Lots of places.”

“Okay, anyhow: They killed everybody, and then I guess they felt bad, and somebody made a rug out of it. And the rug eats people. So that’s why it stays up.”

“Yeah, well—not for long.”

Ashad knew lots of people, one of whom claimed to be an antiques appraiser with a specialty in fabrics, and he’d already made it clear he didn’t intend to wait for whatever portion was coming his way from the family’s corporate dissolution proceedings—fine with Nazneen, since part of his immediate need for money involved the two of them disappearing off to someplace her own family wouldn’t be able to easily locate them. Still, the less said about that, the better.

So they waited until his Dad had taken Mumma off to her monthly glaucoma check-up, when no one but Shecilia was supposed to be home. As perhaps the single most pragmatic person in the mix these days, she hadn’t put up much protest when approached; simply named the size of cut she wanted to let them in, and to run interference should the older generation happen to get back early. Ashad saw bribing her as an investment, and Nazneen had no real proof he wasn’t right; people were like that, she’d found. Mostly.

Which was why it made for somewhat of a surprise when Shecilia didn’t answer the door on the first ring, or the tenth.

“’Round the back,” Ashad said. “There’s an extra key, unless Dad’s moved it.”

He hadn’t.

Upstairs in Mumma’s room, all they found was the rug on the floor and the brand-new Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner just sitting there, half on top of it and half off, still plugged in, and roaring. “Shecilia?” Nazneen called, looking around.

Nothing.

Ashad shrugged, checking his watch. Remarked: “She had the right idea, at least…”

…and, picking up the vacuum’s pipe-shaft, took two brisk steps over the gabbeh’s thin, blood-colored border-band. His shoes came down silent, one, two: “Don’t!” Nazneen warned, automatically—

—and found herself, abruptly, all the more doubly alone, letting the last part of the word trail away into empty air. The vacuum fallen, in a new place on the rug, still roaring.

No way of telling how long she stood there, vaulted instinctively back, to hug the wall; her eyes felt fixed, distended and dry, pupils pin-point. What she would remember, for years after, was how she only jolted awake again when, below, the doorbell rang once more.

The appraiser, a brisk lady all done up in taupe, seemed a bit taken aback when Nazneen answered. “I’m… here to see Ashad?” she said, trying to stare around her.

Good luck with that, Nazneen thought. Hearing herself reply, at the same time: “Oh, he’s just—up… there—”

But the appraiser was already shrugging her way towards the stairs, taking them two at a time. “Oh, never mind,” she called down, “I think I see… is this it?”

Yes, Nazneen felt her lips shape. Then, quickly: But no, don’t, I really wouldn’t, wait

But nothing more followed—not a scream, not a thud, nothing. The vacuum roared on. And then she was sliding down the door-frame with the filmy back of her hijab knocking and rucking itself along the wood-grain: Slack all over and slumped into herself, too weak to peel herself free, even to raise her hands far enough to cover her own eyes.

It didn’t matter. The gabbeh’s pattern hung in the air in front of her, pulsing: A blotch for Ashad’s Baba, another for the appraiser. Another for Ashad himself.

Rout and fire, mayhem and chaos, blood for salt reduced to a cool, grey-green-brown tangle of geometric shapes inside a thin red edging. A square of guilt, pure and thick and hungry, always hungry. Always, and forever.

Ashad’s Dad had to force the door to get in, sending Nazneen toppling onto her side, curled foetally. When he saw her, he took off running, following almost the same path everyone else had. Except that he must’ve stopped just short of the rug itself, because when he began to wail, it cut through Nazneen like a knife.

Ashad’s Mumma, meanwhile, surprised Nazneen by lowering herself just far enough to stroke the hump of Nazneen’s shoulders, as though gentling a horse. “There, there,” she said. “You see, Indian? Did I lie? This has happened before, so many times. It will happen again, surely, just as many.”

“You should burn it,” Nazneen whispered, into the floorboards. And felt the old lady sigh, her fingers thin and sharp as bird-bones.

“But it is ours,” was all she said, finally. And to this, even as Ashad’s Dad cried on, striking his forehead over and over against the hardwood floor of the corridor outside his mother’s room—

—there really could be no possible reply.

E N D

 

Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.

Original illustration by Luke Spooner, AKA Carrion House.

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PSTD INTERVIEW: JOHN LANGAN

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John Langan in his natural environment

***

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

Thanks very much for having me, Sean.

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

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

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

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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.

Threshold

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

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

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

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

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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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MR. GAUNT BY JOHN LANGAN

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His father’s voice returned.

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your Granny,” I said.

“Oh, go on, you,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Peter did not speak of his mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob_image

Illustration by Rob Thompson.

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

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

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

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

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

“Letters,” I declared.

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

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

“Letters from Peter,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, nodding vigorously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why Peter?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“He was your son,” I said.

“Yes,” George said.  “And?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, “yes, you are.”

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

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“I am.”

“Then you’re a monster.”

“To you, perhaps,” he said.

“You’re mad,” I said.

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

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

“Excuse me?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

His Uncle George said, “Hello, Henry.”

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

“How is everything?” his uncle asked.

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

“Uh oh.”

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

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

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

“Music?”

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

“Of course.  What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll see you there.”

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

 ***

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

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

 

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