What first attracted you to horror writing?
I came to horror via a circuitous route. The fantastic always attracted me because the stories were about impossible events which could not happen within the ‘real’ world, seemingly involving internal realities and psychological dreamscapes. And yet these writings felt very true to me, and I was fascinated that stories could work that way. It made me look at the imagination as a different way of finding out the truth about things. I was reading the only such stuff available to me in our small school library–fairytales & folklore, Jules Verne and HG Wells, and some ghostly fiction (MR James & followers mostly) which I didn’t think of as horror—they certainly weren’t like the ‘Shock Theatre’ sorts of movies on television. I also read comics, which seemed like the modern version of folk and fairytales. I had a passion for comics. Still do.
I was a rather fearful kid, probably more fearful than the average, from what I remember. I was terrified of the dark, animals, hurricanes, tornadoes, my own father, and a vengeful God and going to hell. Nothing in literature or the movies could compete in terms of fear with the frightful images inside my own head, although some folktales about witch-women and the devil came pretty close, and the movie The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, whose surreality I found terrifying and unhinging.
When we finally got a public library in our isolated region I became obsessed with reading all the books bearing the sticker used to identify science fiction. What continued to attract me to SF over the years was that this was the imagination pushing forward—it was a visionary way to look at ourselves by looking beyond ourselves. I tried my hand, submitting a number of pieces to Ted White at Amazing. But while I was in college I became disenchanted with both comics and SF as a way to tell stories. I wanted to read fiction which was emotional, which inspired great passion. Most of the comics of the time didn’t appear to be about anything essential, and I thought they were terribly written. And although there was emotion in classic SF, it felt somehow second-hand. I felt that the visionary nature of it inspired emotion in the reader, and it was the reader who carried that emotional yearning to the story. The characters in many of the stories seemed flat and uninteresting, and the prose uninspired.
So like any good English major I read the canon—the great novels, the plays, the poetry. I developed literary crushes on Thomas Wolfe, on Blake, the American poet Robinson Jeffers, even on Gerard Manley Hopkins for a time. I became fascinated with the surrealists, then with Ezra Pound and everything he touched, then Robert Bly, then Kafka and Borges and Calvino, and fabulists like Barthelme and Russell Edson. I fell in love with the short story form, decided I was going to become a poet and short story writer, and spent many many hours in the college library and in my tiny apartment reading both, in every anthology and literary journal I could get my hands on, sleeping very little.
I got into a graduate writing programme at Colorado State University on the basis of some poems which led the admissions committee to label me as some sort of ‘southern surrealist’. I had written a number of short stories, but I really didn’t know how to form them. It was only after I started writing prose poetry that I learned to create stories, although for several years those stories never got much longer than 1800 words.
I wanted those early stories to be as emotional, as invested, and as imaginative as my poems were. But it didn’t click for me until I started reading stories by writers such as Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, and Charlie Grant. I remember reading the first Shadows volume, and some of Dennis Etchison’s early work. It was quite a revelation for me. Harlan’s work was labelled science fiction, but it was certainly unlike any SF I’d ever read, and Ramsey’s, Charlie’s, Dennis’s work—it was labelled horror, but I really couldn’t fit their work into what I thought horror was. But they did fit in nicely with what was happening in those old ghost stories I’d read as a teenager.
Things fell into place very quickly for me then. Here was emotional, poetic writing which seemed to relate directly to this sense of the imaginative truths to be found in fantastic literature, and it dealt with some of the issues and fears which had haunted me since childhood. I read as much as I could of these writers and those like them—not thinking of these stories as horror really but as a particular approach to dark materials. And I wrote constantly in one of the most prolific periods I’ve ever had—it was an exciting time, because it just seemed that everything I’d been passionate about in the past—the surrealists and Blake and Jeffers and Kafka and folklore and fairytales and dream logic and my deepest fears—could all go into the making of these stories. I sold the first one I wrote, in fact, to Ramsey for New Terrors, and I was thrilled when another of my early pieces was accepted by Charlie for Shadows 3.
Notable is a relative term I suppose. When you’ve written a lot of stories you discover that your audience fragments a bit. Some people will only read my quieter stories. Others prefer it when I’m a bit more graphic. A few people only like my non-supernatural noir. And there are a few who greatly prefer the experimental pieces. And my relatively recent SF stories in places like Asimov’s seem to have gotten me a few fans I didn’t have before. Over the years, the stories which readers most frequently bring to my attention are ‘City Fishing’, ‘Hungry’, ‘The Poor’, ‘Preparations for the Game’, ‘Bodies & Heads’, ‘In the Trees’, ‘Angel Combs’, ‘Invisible’, ‘The Bereavement Photographer’, and most recently ‘A Letter from the Emperor’. A number of my best stories appear in my collections City Fishing and The Far Side of the Lake (now reissued as an e-book.
The most attention, however, has gone to The Man on the Ceiling, the novella I wrote with my wife Melanie Tem, and which we later expanded into a novel. I think this is because a lot of people hadn’t read that peculiar blend of fiction and autobiography before. And it certainly pushed us both imaginatively and technically beyond anything else we’d tried.
What are you working on now?
I recently completed my first all age” book, The Mask Shop of Doctor Black, which my agent is currently shopping around. It’s a Bradbury-ish tale of a young girl and her little brother who go shopping in an elaborate mask emporium at Halloween, and well, let’s just say some complications arise. I’m somewhat hesitant to say what’s still in progress, since books are often a glacial engagement for me, but I’m progressing on a couple of decades-old projects, and also working on a science fiction novel concerning the future of intelligent machines, Before Oblivion. And an expansion of my zombie story Bodies & Heads into a novel. No promises about when any of this will be done. And of course there’s the usual assortment of short stories.
This year there will be final revisions as well to some upcoming projects: Ugly Behavior, due out in the Fall from New Pulp Press collects the best of my noir fiction. And next year Chizine will be publishing Celestial Inventories, a substantial collection of the best of my imaginative fiction from the past few years.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
There are so many it’s difficult to know where to begin, or where to stop. I think we’re in the midst of a golden age of short horror fiction, with every flavour of it imaginable. Besides the people I’ve already mentioned I could name a few newer writers such as Laird Barron, John Langan, Margo Lanagan, the three Simons—Unsworth, Stranzas and Bestwick, Tim Lebbon, Glen Hirshberg, Angela Slater, Joel Lane, Brian Evenson, and three writers who work powerfully pretty much all over the imaginative spectrum—Caitlin Kiernan, Kelly Link and Jeffrey Ford. But there are many, many more.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
I’m not sure if it’s really an either/or sort of question for me. The build-up telling, suspenseful detail in a horror story – whether you decide to go gory at some point or to keep it subtle – is part of the psychological horror bag of techniques, and generally speaking the right kind of base for a horror tale. If you don’t have that kind of base, what happens later on tends to feel arbitrary and unprepared for. If you blast the reader with gore from the first paragraph on, I think you tend to create an amusement park ride instead of a story that’s going to move people. It then becomes a game in which they’re measuring your ability to create original gory special effects instead of truly involving themselves in the emotion of the story.
There are always exceptions, of course. Theoretically you can structure a story around a series of hallucinogenic, visceral images which aren’t suspenseful at all and come too quickly to be completely understandable, but which are so powerful and compelling there is a certain rightness to them which is undeniable. I think some of Clive Barker’s short work has that effect.
The risk of those kinds of images, however, is that in lesser hands they tend to disengage the reader from the emotion of the story, so that instead of remaining involved the reader pauses to admire your cleverness. And if you get the imagery wrong—if it seems forced, or arbitrary—the story falls apart completely. But if you get it right the payoff can be huge.
For myself, I tend to trust the subtle, psychological approach to more than adequately convey what I’m after, often concluding the story not with an image but with a twist in insight expressed through language. For one thing, it draws more readers in. But if I think I have the perfect graphic image it’s hard not to use it.
To stop my children and grandchildren from scavenging through garbage cans.
Recommend a book.
I’m very proud of my new novel, Deadfall Hotel. It’s now out in a gorgeous limited hardcover from Centipede Press with these great Gorey-like illustrations by John Kenn Mortensen. Solaris Books is doing the paperback and ebook editions in May.
The basic plot is a widower takes the job of manager at a remote hotel where the guests are not quite like you and me, accompanied by his daughter and the ghost of his wife. During the course of the novel I look at many of the basic horror tropes, exploring them, poking at them, coming up with my own interpretations. There are supernatural creatures, cults, and eccentric characters interacting in my version of the ultimate haunted hotel. The atmosphere is reminiscent of both Gorey and Peake with touches of Bradbury, filtered through my own personal obsessions and bugaboos.
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