Tag Archives: Thomas Ligotti

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.

MV5BOTU5MDg3OGItZWQ1Ny00ZGVmLTg2YTUtMzBkYzQ1YWIwZjlhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAzMTY4MDA@._V1_

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.

toniColette

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.)

UnknownDarko

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.)

MV5BMTU4NzA4MDEwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQxODYzNjM@._V1_

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.

it-9781501175466_hr

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.

3-24-2010 7;55;15 PM

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.”

screen-shot-2018-10-10-at-11-40-10

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

PSTD AUTHOR INTERVIEW: MIKE ALLEN

51W8tOPkdeL._UX250_

 

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.

22838506

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.

22472298

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.

harry-clarke-poe-tales-of-mystery-and-imagination-19_900

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.”

61KytVUkU8L._SY355_

“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.

1_GrimscribeRobinsonFront

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.

61IA+1DUYfL

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!

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