Friday, July 15, 2016

TC Review & Interview: Brian Evenson quietly leads literary horror into the 21st century with new fiction collection A COLLAPSE OF HORSES


I recently attended a Brian Evenson reading held at Skylight Books in the appropriately understated, enduringly cool east Hollywood enclave of Los Feliz. During the Q & A session after he read his latest collection's titular piece, Evenson shared a personal story that had occurred in a parking garage just days before. As he was walking to his car one afternoon, he noticed a fluttering object up ahead of him, trapped in the corner of the structure, that appeared to be a distressed bird most likely injured and unable to fly. As he drew nearer, he realized that what he was certain was a bird was actually a dead leaf, rocking back and forth in the wind. This gave him pause, and in pondering what he had just seen, or thought he had seen, he surmised that it could be possible that the bird he first saw may have physically transformed itself into the leaf that he found.

This was a quick anecdote, and seemingly innocuous, but as the discussion moved on, this visual vignette and its explanation sent my mind reeling with possibility: When we don't trust our eyes, perhaps we should. When we do trust our eyes, and what information it is relaying to our rational brain, perhaps we shouldn't. Maybe what we think we see but would never dare believe is actually what's absolutely real. Perception can be reality when reality is what we not just perceive, but truly see. Or don't. If a tree falls in the forest and you weren't there to see it, did it not fall?

Some may look upon a rocky outcropping, or a hole in the ground, or a cave, and see it for what it is in a physical sense. Some see these things as something else. Yet others can hear a sound in the woods and interpret it as the swaying of trees in the wind, or the movement of harmless animals. A different set of ears, attached to a different brain, infuse those noises with dread, and potential violence. Terror. Strips of meat hang in a cellar. What sort of meat is it? Why are they there? Is this innocuous, or is this horrific? Can it be both?

If we do not perceive something to be horrifying, it is not horrifying to us. Similarly, if we find something horrifying, ASSIGN it horror, it will be just that. We should question everything. It would be safer to question nothing.

This is heavy philosophical cargo, dealing with the heart and ephemeral soul of physical existence. But more so, these concepts examine the truth or lies of perception, shaded by interpretation, learned bias and ritualized certitude. Perception. Interpretation. Challenging rationalism through a realization of the "supernatural." A loss of control, willingly or not. Dissolution and disintegration.

Brian Evenson deals directly with these sorts of issues in his novels and especially in his short fiction, collected most recently in A Collapse of Horses, published by Coffee House Press as the fourth piece of a "cover puzzle" that also includes re-issues of  Father of Lies (1999), The Open Curtain (2006), and Last Days (2009). In these seventeen tales, Evenson shows us his wide range of literary darkness, probing at all those spots that hurt and unsettle us most.

Since the mid 90's and the release of his brilliant debut collection Altmann's Tongue, Evenson's work has been widely acclaimed, celebrated within genre fiction and without, and keeping him from falling into any easily classifiable genre pigeonhole. Yet he has and continues to write some of the most vital, brutal, and unsettling fiction today. For my money, he writes horror, in the truest sense of the word.

In doing so, in writing these horrors, he rarely falls back on the easy crutch of "going supernatural," but instead sets the table with very real forks, knives, spoons, and plates, although arranging them in such a way that you'd swear some outside force was messing with the scene, re-positioning everything in such a way as to hint of a malevolent presence engaged in disorienting us just long enough to take us down.

This strain of dark fiction - let's call it the Evenson Strain - gives volume and heat to one of the central chambers in the beating heart of contemporary literary horror, sprouting a strongly pumping artery that is leading us into this new century, depositing us - we platelets - on strange, unsafe shores. Great beasts (rarely) scuttle from crypts or rise from the ocean in Evenson's stories. His horrors somehow seem extraordinarily real, and waiting for us all, fate willing. We are monsters and are surrounded by monsters that are sometimes less monsters than we.

Which brings us to A Collapse of Horses, an enviable title that perfectly sets the tone for the stories to come, which include the following standouts:

"Black Bark" ushers us into the collection, introducing us to Sugg and Rawley, two men on the run in the old horse American west. Sugg took a bullet in the leg, and is holding out hope for a cabin waiting just around the next bend in the trail. Instead, they settle for a cave, where a "good luck charm" has good missing from a bloody boot, and a story is told in the flickering light of a campfire. The story of black bark, found in the coat pocket of a man who had no idea how it got there. Then, later, another story is told. "'Doesn't matter much one way or the other,' said Sugg. Then he opened his mouth wide and smiled. It was a terrible thing to watch. Rawley began to be very afraid."

"A Report" reminds me of Kafka (which makes sense, considering Kafka's influence on a young Evenson, something I found out well after making this comparison), only better, soaked with the terror of imprisonment without reason, without end, and - possibly the worst part - without explanation. The tricks the mind plays, and the victims becoming the instigators.

"The Punish" explores the enduring power of childhood trespasses, performed in secret, away from adult eyes and rules, and how these actions can shape the rest of a person's life, for good and for ill. This is a tragic tale of never being allowed to forget the past, and the power of karma.

In "Cult," one cannot help but think of religious compounds, which include those founded on LDS teaching, that litter the western hinterlands of the United States. The weakness and indecision of our protagonist in dealing with an ex had me seconds from screaming at the page. Reads like a price of slightly spooky contemporary fiction, wrapped tight in personal lamentation and religious critique. Excellent.

"A Seaside Town" is - simply and crudely put - one of the best pieces of uncanny and weird fiction I've ever encountered. It reads like Ligotti on a Victorian holiday, and makes the mundane into something unsettling, threatening, dangerous. I have no idea why this story scared me so much, why the activities in the courtyard filled me with such disquiet, but they did. All of them. Stories don't frighten me much, but this one did. A masterstroke of the uncanny that left me scratching my head in grateful awe.

"The Dust" is realistic science fiction Noir, with the situation being very relatable to any locality on any planet. An insidious dust is wreaking havoc on a mining operation, quickly becoming the last of the small crews' problems as they deal with depleting oxygen and the death of one of their own. This is a longer work, a murder mystery novelette buried within a survival tale set on some nameless rock floating in the cold, airless reaches of space, and I couldn't stop turning the pages.

"BearHeart (tm)" is as harrowing tale of parenthood cut short, and the copping mechanisms employed by the grieving couple left spinning in the wake. You can see what's coming, but you don't turn away, because you can't.

"Scour" explores the delicate nature of life, the  and the long, unending concept of death.
The drudgery of the afterlife. If death came for you, would you recognize it? Would you know that you're dead? Once again, dust and grit play a central role

"Past Reno" might be the second-best story in A Collapse of Horses, as it gins up dread in ways that you never thought possible, including through the unlikely vehicle of a diner bathroom mirror. This is Evenson at his very best, mining his past and those dry, western landscapes he knows so well, and the darker spaces just under the surface, where things hang from the ceiling that he doesn't want to know at all.

With "Any Corpse," Evenson veers into dark fantasy and body horror more associated with Neil Gaiman at his most ghastly, or Clive Barker on any given Sunday. This story shows impressive world-building in a strange, grisly afterlife, weaving a level of strangeness that I found comforting, even inspiring. A surprising tale, and by Evenson's own admission, one of the last two stories he added to the collection at the 11th hour before it went to print. I'm very glad it made it in.

"Click," confusion, injury, loss of memory, power of suggestion, at the mercy of larger forces that probably don't have your best interests, or your freedom, at heart - a theme that runs through this collection like a cold needle through flesh. Our protagonists could be having a bad dream or an hallucination, brought on by what appears to be a mass murder and near-suicide. But one can never know, if one cannot trust one's own brain, or the reality that it builds from the information at hand. Officials hover around a hospital bedside, bent on interrogation, obfuscation. They threaten, but don't actually harm or kill you, which might be worse. The waiting. The not knowing. The unreliability of perception, and what horror that surely lays just beneath this thin layer of what our eyes, our brain, tells us is real.

I could go on, but I feel like that would be doing you a disservice, and more importantly, time's a'wasting. It's now your turn to get down into the dust next to A Collapse of Horses, close your eyes, and see where it is that you wake up, and what your brain now tells you. You might be surprised. No, strike that. You will be surprised.
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Does this man scare you? This man scares me.

Thank you for joining us at The Cosmicomicon, Brian. I can tell by the number of staff members gathering in the hallway outside the door that we're all excited to have you here. Let's begin...

Creatives are often influenced by and, to some degree, a reflection of what they have seen, heard, read, endured, and consumed. What are some of the primary elements that have shaped you as a writer?

When I was pretty young, maybe 14, my father gave me a book of Kafka’s stories.  It was unlike anything I’d read before and kind of blew my mind.  But I was also reading SF writers like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, and I was watching a lot of horror and thrillers as well—saw Halloween when I was thirteen and it opened up all sorts of doors for me.  Later, when I was in high school, I stumbled into a lot of theater of the absurd stuff that Grove Press had published—Beckett, Ionesco.  Then later, when I was a Mormon missionary, I managed to talk my companion into going to see David Lynch’s Blue Velvet without either of us having any idea what we were getting into, and again that was so different than anything I’d read.  That movie became a kind of touchstone for me—for many years I had much of it memorized.


It took a while, but eventually I somehow just kind of figured that if I could find all of that satisfying, my readers would too, and that those influences should be allowed to talk to one another on the page.  Early in my career people would tell me that was a bad idea—one of my first reviews suggested I’d be a good writer once the macabre in me had melted down—but I’ve always been stubborn.  Now, it seems to appeal to people.

So, you've seen a change in reader reaction to your fiction from earlier in your career to now?

Probably more a change in critic reaction than in reader reaction.  I think when I was first writing there were a lot of critics who saw the line between genre and literature as very firm, as more of a wall than a line.  They thought you should stay on one side or the other.  I watched some early critics go through acrobatics to avoid mentioning the connections of my work to genre, and other critics criticize it for that connection.  Now, it’s much more widely accepted that what many of that generation thought of as a wall is more like a line drawn in the sand, and that in certain places the wind has made it so you can’t even be sure where the line is at all.

It’s funny:  in the early 20th century it was really common to publish collections that would have a mix of stories in them, some of them literary, some ghost stories, some detective stories, etc.—the idea being, I guess, that you trusted the skill of the author and her ability to entertain you no matter what sort of story she was telling.  But in the second half of the twentieth century there was more of a tendency to divide things out, to publish a book of literary stories or a book of science fiction stories or of a book of horror stories, but not all three.  Now it’s swung back the other way somewhat, partly because of how much good publishing is being done by small and intermediate presses that don’t let their aesthetic taste be guided by their publicity and marketing departments, and partly because the people reading now grew up comfortable with the idea that they could watch an art film on Netflix on Monday, then a horror film on Tuesday, then a drama on Thursday.  We’re much more comfortable crossing those genre lines as readers.

Novels are considered a much easier sell to publishers and to readers, yet you still consistently work in the short form. What is it about the short story that continues to draw you back?

I think stories are such a rich form, that there’s so much you can do with them.  They’re compressed and quick, and as a result every word matters, every word is either helping build something or it’s not doing its job.  With novels, there are slack moments, slack passages, places where you have to let the reader rest a little or they’ll be exhausted.  In a story, you can keep the tension ratcheted tightly throughout.

Thematically, you run the gamut in A Collapse of Horses, from quiet pieces of literary fiction to science fiction to dark fantasy and grisly horror. Did you aim for genre diversity in this collection, or did it just turn out that way? 

It kind of just turned out that way.  Originally I wasn’t aiming for it, but after I had maybe 2/3rds of the stories and was trying to decide what to include I found I had stories that touched on a fairly tight set of ideas and themes but that also felt really different on the surface, were playing with different genre elements.  So I made a choice to embrace that.

Actually, originally the collection had two other quite different pieces in it which would have made it even more diverse but my editor Chris Fischbach and I decided at the last moment to take them out and save them for a later collection.  And then I added in their place “Any Corpse” and “Seaside Town”, both of which were written pretty late.  I added them in just before we printed the galleys.  “The Blood Drip” was a fairly late addition too, but not as late.  It would have been a really different collection without that.

Those last-minute additions are standout stories in your collection. Staying with specifics, with stories like "The Punish," "Cult," "Past Reno," and even to a certain degree "A Collapse of Horses," one gets the impression that many of your stories are intensely personal, reflecting either occurrences in your life or issues for which you hold strong feelings. Is this accurate? If so, do you find writing these stories to be a means of exploration, reader entertainment, or catharsis? 

It’s funny, I think the moments in my story that are personal are probably not the ones that seem personal.  Those personal details are there, but they’re usually hiding quietly in the story, trying to energize it in some way.  So, for “The Punish” the situation is completely constructed, but the architecture of the house is a combination of my best friend’s house growing up (who was very different from that character) and a particular open staircase that was in my grandmother’s house.  And the vertigo he feels going up the staircase, yes, that’s something I experienced when I was young.

“Cult” is loosely based on a story a friend of mine told me about going to pick up his ex-girlfriend at a cult.  There, it was really just a question of imagining a character not unlike myself into the situation and thinking about how wrong it could go.  The journey in “Past Reno” is creepily closely based on a trip we took through Nevada—all the little details of that trip are things I scribbled as notes while driving, just tweaked to be slightly (but only slightly) weirder.  But the father in that story is really different from my own father—though not unlike people I grew up around.

With “A Collapse of Horses” it’s a little different:  that whole story started with a moment when I was walking through Golden Gate Park with Kristen when we were dating and we came across a paddock that had four or five horses in it, all of them lying down.  I’d never seen a horse lying down before, despite growing up in the West, and I wondered if they were sick or, for a fleeting instant, dead. I watched them maybe five seconds before they finally moved.  I went away haunted by that, and began to wonder how a more compromised character might take it in.

It seems like the concepts of perception and interpretation pervade A Collapse of Horses, and your earlier work, where things might not appear to be as they truly are, and vice versa. That there can be more to this reality, if we are foolhardy enough to scratch a bit too deeply. If this supposition is true, are you posing these questions consciously, in an effort to express a worldview, or perhaps an observation on existence? Or is it more metaphysical than that?

I think of it first of all pretty literally:  perception is pretty problematic, and we seem to have always been insulated from reality in some way or other.  I’m interested in thinking about that in two ways, I guess.  First, what happens when what we thought of as real or solid suddenly collapses and leaves us in free fall?  Second, what happens when we break through one reality into a darker one hiding beneath?  So, vertigo on the one hand, terror on the other...

But yes, I think there’s a worldview behind that, that has something to do with the impossibility of ever knowing anything for certain, of ever being in a position in which you can trust reality.  I don’t think you ever can.  That shouldn’t prevent you from living most of the time like you can, but if you’re attentive and have a certain amount of morbid and dangerous curiosity, I think you notice moments when your perception warps or shifts things, where you have to back up and figure out the world in a new way.


How did the recent release of the four "Cover Puzzle" books by Coffee House Press come about?

The covers were designed by my daughter Sarah, who is a visual artist living in Minneapolis, and who has done a few other book covers for other people.  My editor had mentioned wanting to have her do a broadside with the release of the four books and she went in to talk with them about that, and then suddenly she was doing the covers.  I was a little taken aback, though also very happy with what she did.  I like the cover puzzle—though I know it can be frustrating if you already know the books.  Coffee House is doing some more re-releases of mine, and I’m hoping we can continue the puzzle, keep expanding the monster.

You've probably been hounded to death about this, but for any readers who are unfamiliar with your background, how has your upbringing in the Mormon Church affected your worldview, and therefore the stories you write? 

I think it had a big effect.  I grew up in a culture that had a strange relationship to art.  With movies for instance, as a Mormon you weren’t supposed to watch R-rated movies.  But a lot of my friends growing up decided that that it was okay to watch R-rated movies if they were rated R for the violence rather than for sex, that it was okay if they were “only violent.”  I think with my first book especially I was responding to that, to the way in which violence had been normalized in Mormon culture (and indeed in the culture at large).  I was trying to make violence unsettling again.

But there are a lot of other things too.  I think there’s a sort of tone to my work that draws on a formal, slightly archaic way of speaking that Mormons can fall back on in worship situations.  Because I appropriate that language, I think my work is more unsettling to Mormons than it is to people who are not Mormon.  But of course there are other ways of coming at a similar tone—that’s something I respond to in some of your work, for instance, or in some of Matt Bell’s work.

In terms of worldview, I think something about being raised Mormon and having left it has allowed me to examine some pretty dark territory, but I’m not sure why—and obviously if I was watching Blue Velvet when I was a Mormon missionary I’ve long had an odd relation to the culture.  I’ve got a weird combination of ideas I’ve inherited from Mormonism and ways in which I’ve broken from Mormonism. I’m not religious at this point—I’ve formally left the Mormon Church (excommunication) and am happy to be outside of it.  But it’s never easy to completely shake your upbringing, and I don’t know that I’d want to.

If we could explore your missions work a bit more... While you were working as a Mormon missionary - which, although it might be compulsory, would make you more than just a casual follower of the faith - did you find it difficult to reconcile your perhaps non-Mormon view of reality into your religious life? Meaning, was it hard to be someone who thought as a horror writer while still living as a practicing, and evangelizing, Mormon?

It isn’t actually compulsory and yes, I was a pretty active Mormon for a long time, though I always had a complicated relationship to the religion as you might guess from the Blue Velvet story I mentioned above.  I think that my relationship to Mormonism gave the horror I was seeing and watching a certain intensity and resonance that it might not have had otherwise.  It felt much more seriously transgressive to me than it might have in another context, and once I started writing it, it felt like I was playing for keeps.

I was actually sent home from my mission in France and Switzerland for having broken too many mission rules, and then was allowed to go out and continue my mission in Wisconsin.  Eventually, I chose to leave and not complete it.  But then, later, after I was married, I came back to it and served in a Mormon bishopric and so was one of three people overseeing a congregation of several hundred.  And yet, even while I was doing that, I was taking classes for my PhD that challenged notions of truth and meaning, a lot of contemporary philosophy.  I also took a class on the work of the Marquis de Sade.  So I was reading de Sade in French during the week and then running religious meetings on Sunday.  It was a very schizophrenic life, and I think I was pretty good at compartmentalizing it, and at moments there was something exhilarating about how far it stretched me.  I simply didn’t reconcile it and eventually it stretched too far and broke.  Having said that, I’m very content no longer being Mormon and am certain I’ll never go back.

You've recently relocated to California from Providence, Rhode Island. Do you think the change in geography will seep into, or perhaps alter your work written after your move?

I think it will.  I hope it does.  It’s great in any case to be back in the West. I think about writers like Dennis Etchison and what they’ve managed to do with horror and the very particular landscape of the West and I think it can’t help but seep in.  But then again, I’ve never really set a story in Rhode Island, so maybe now that I’m out of New England I can write my New England stories...

You've been writing in horror and dark fiction for a long time, starting professionally with the release of Altmann's Tongue in 1994. Have you seen any recurring themes, movements, or trends in speculative fiction during that time? Is the genre different now than it was then? Weaker? Stronger?

It strikes me as much stronger overall, even though there were giants in the field already established at that time—people like Peter Straub, for instance, or Stephen King or Clive Barker.  What I guess strikes me as stronger is the range and variety, and the way in which Weird Fiction has become a strong and varied genre which people give real credence to.  There’s just so much going on at the moment, and such great writers—Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Baron, Paul Tremblay, Gemma Files, John Langan, Michael Cisco, Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin, etc., etc.  Even in just that list, there’s such a variety of approaches to horror and dark fiction...  So I feel we’re in a period of possibility and expansion, where people are really exploring the limits and possibilities of what the genre can do.  That’s healthy, and really great for us as readers, and it shows the genre is still healthy and alive.

Tells us a bit about The Warren, your recent novella published by Tor.

The Warren doesn’t come out until September, but a few galleys are floating around.  It’s an SF novel, though different from “The Dust”, the SF novella in the collection.  In terms of my work, it’s closest to Immobility and has a similar kind of meditation on identity and memory.  It’s about a person who may not be who he thinks he is, may not, in fact, even be a person at all.

Should Trump win the upcoming presidential election, will the dark fiction and horror genres suffer, in that everyone will be facing a horrific reality each and every day, and therefore will need stories written about puppies and bunnies to soothe their tattered souls?

Yes.  Even now, as we approach the political conventions, we need stories about puppies and bunnies...

What is left unwritten for you? What is a major goal, in terms of either story or medium, that you'd still like to accomplish?

I have an idea for a long novel and about 75 pages of notes.  I’d like to get around to writing that.  I’m always interested in new projects as well—I find it very hard to resist something I haven’t done before.  For instance, a few years back I got asked if I would write fake subtitles for a Turkish sit-com.  “Of course!” I said.  I feel like I learn something from doing something outside of my comfort zone, that it’s good as a writer to be shaken out of your complacencies.

What's on tap? What should readers expect next from you? 

Besides The Warren, I’m working toward a new and selected stories volume and a collected novellas volume with Coffee House Press, but those will be three or four years down the road...

Thanks so much, Brian. Many thanks for stopping by The Cosmicomion cafe, and we appreciate you leaving our bathroom mirror intact.  

You’re welcome!  (And are you sure you double-checked the mirror?)
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Yep, still terrifying
Order A Collapse of Horses here.
Order The Warren here.
Find Brian Evenson online here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nomination News: The Nameless Dark - A Collection nominated for 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Single-Author Collection


It gives me great pleasure to announce that The Nameless Dark - A Collection was officially nominated today for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Single-Author Collection.

I count this as especially meaningful, as The Shirley Jackson Awards have always focused on those writers that I personally think are among the best working today, consistently nominating and awarding such writers, editors, and other creatives as Brian Evenson, Michael Marshall Smith, Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Elizabeth Hand, Joel Lane, Mike Mignola, S.P. Miskowski, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Gemma Files, Ellen Datlow, Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn, Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman, S. T. Joshi, Steve Berman, Reggie Oliver, Michael Cisco, Kelly Link, Tim Waggoner, Lucius Sheppard, Kelly Link, Glen Hirshberg, Stephen Jones, Jack Ketchum, Ian Rogers, Jeffrey Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Nicole Cushing, Ramsey Campbell, Nina Allen, Josh Malerman, Robert Levy, Kate Jonez, Ross E. Lockhart, Michael Kelly, Mark Morris, and others. Those I left out I haven't yet had the opportunity to read, but always use the Shirley Jackson Award nominee list as a browsers guideline.

These are the names I regularly seek out. That these individuals have also been honored by the Shirley Jackson Awards in eight short years, while not necessarily other awards organizations, makes my appreciation all the greater that I am joining these names with my own. To say I'm humbled to be in this august company would be a disgusting understatement, but I'll say it anyway - I am incredibly humbled to be in this august company.

Also important to note, Shirley Jackson is an icon of dark fiction, and a master of the short tale. Ask me on the right day, and I'll tell you that "The Lottery" is the best short story ever written (on the wrong day, I'll tell you that it's Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"). So, receiving a nomination for a prize named after Ms. Jackson is all the more special because of her impact, and what she did to push forward the genres of horror, supernatural, and fantastical fiction.

I don't write for awards, just like I don't write for reviews. But when I receive a positive review, it makes me feel good, knowing that the work connected with a reader. That's the whole point of all of this, at least in my mind. To write fiction that resonates, entertains, possibly transports and builds something new inside the brain of the reader.

So, too, is it with awards. I never expected to receive any accolades for my debut collection, or for any of the stories it contains. But receiving an honor from an organization that I truly, truly respect, based on the people involved and the past nominees and winners, is a wonderful feeling, and provides further evidence that what I am doing - writing dark fiction - is worthwhile, and has meaning to readers and colleagues.

I'd like to take this time to again thank Nathan Ballingrud for the brilliant foreword and the recommendation, and Laird Barron for the double rec to Lethe Press. Both of these guys helped get my work on the right desk. And I'd like to thank Lethe head honcho Steve Berman for taking a chance on a collection of dark stories written by a relative unknown.

Most of all, and it cannot be understated, I want to express my profound appreciation and head over heels, cartoon-eyed love for my extraordinary wife, Ives Hovanessian, for the priceless editorial work she did on these tales, helping to hone down and lean up my writing, as well as providing important plot elements, including the ending of "The Screamer." She quite literally found The Screamer for me after I was searching for it in vain for several years. She also found the collection cover artist (Arnaud de Vallois!) and designed what became the final look of the cover. But even more importantly, she has my eternal gratitude for being the first person in my life who gave me the confidence to be myself, cut my losses (in the form of 50 billion shitty scripts), and truly write what and how I wanted to write, following a calling I first heard in childhood but never answered until decades later. I've said this before in interviews and conversations, but it truly bears repeating that I wouldn't be working in fiction right now if it wasn't for her, and so I wouldn't be here writing this to you, dear reader. So, Ivy jan, this nomination is for you, and a fitting tribute after you first read to me aloud "The Lottery" a half decade ago and blew my mind yet again.

To my fellow nominees for all of the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards, I wish you a hearty congrats and much luck, as it seems we're all going to need it.


Monday, April 18, 2016

TC Artist Interview: The Shadowed Childhood Eternal - Artist, Author, and Filmmaker Gris Grimly Melds Innocence with Horror, Fantasy, and Fairy Tale into a Signature Dark Homage


Last October, I was invited to participate in something that I count as very special, as I was asked by Steve Fjeldsted, Director of Library Arts and Culture at the South Pasadena Library, to co-present the animated film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree at the library on October 29th, just a few days before All Hallow's Eve. As a huge Bradbury fan, I was incredibly honored to be involved in a public celebration of this icon's work, especially around Halloween, as no other American writer owns this special date on the calendar more than Mr. Bradbury.

One of the co-presenters was Gris Grimly, a Los Angeles-based artist, filmmaker, and writer who illustrated the most recent edition of The Halloween Tree book, published by Knopf. There was an exhibit of Grimly's work showcased in conjunction with the film screening, and I walked with the other eager eyes and I took in Grimly's work, digging the love of the macabre in combination with the playfulness of youth. The settings and tone made me feel as if I'd known this work, these images, my whole life. This was how I've always felt about Bradbury's fiction. I came to a serious reading of his stories quite late, comparatively, but it settled into me like it has always been there, coloring my imagination and showing me things both familiar and excitingly original. Grimly produces this sort of work, art with a Bradburian warmth and magic, with an undercurrent of something looming that threatens to shatter bucolic pleasantries. A joy amidst the dread, mixed together like a perfect cocktail. He makes everyone feel young and curious and open to wonder again, unafraid of the shadows, invincible against the night. It's a special power, discovering that balanced waltz, but Grimly - like Bradbury - has found the rare rhythm.


Before the end of the event, as we sat behind our respective books and grinned at the crowded room filled with fellow Bradbury acolytes ranging in age from single digits to eight or nine decades, I asked Grimly if he'd like to participate in an interview for The Cosmicomicon, and he generously agreed. This is the result of that interview, echoing back to a perfect pre-Halloween night in South Pasadena. I hope you enjoy the questions, the answers, and Gris Grimly's superlative work.
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TC - Thank you for sitting down with us across this sturdy virtual table, Gris. 

GG - Thank you for having me…cyberly.

For those who might not be familiar, give us a little background and context on what you do, and where interested eyeballs might be able to find your work, in print and on screen.

I spent the most part of my career trudging along a delusional road that weaved vexingly throughout frustration, confusion, and misguidance. I have come out the other side of this tenebrous backwoods, and for the first time, I can answer that question with more confidence and pride than ever before. I am a children’s book illustrator and author. These books can be found wherever fine books are sold.

We won't give away any secrets as to your true identity, and assuming that your father and mother are not Mr. and Mrs. Grimly, where did the name "Gris Grimly" come from?

My first book was about to be released, and I was feeling uncertain about beginning my career under my Christian name. This was for many reasons. Firstly, being of Scandinavian decent, my surname is not phonetic, and therefore it is impossible to pronounce, spell, or remember. Secondly, I had a vision of what kind of illustrator I wanted to be. Edward Gorey was a huge influence on me and I found his name delivered a distinct impression that was fitting to his work. I wanted a name that could represent the tone and content of my work as well as serve as my identity. I started playing with words and once it came to me, there was an immediate resonation.

What is it about the dark, the shadowed, the spooky that attracts you? Why, in the words of Joseph Conrad, do you possess a "fascination with the abomination"?

I’ve been asked this question quite a bit. I was born days away from Halloween. The zodiac predicts that I would be fascinated by the abominable. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, isolated from cultured society, witnessing the harsh realities of life and death that surrounded me. At a young age, I was horribly burned in a bucket of boiling water, which put me in the hospital for a month. I grew up in a strict-religious environment where I was forbidden to watch horror movies, monsters were discouraged and Halloween was the devil’s day. Regardless, I consumed all of it. But with all these coincidences, I would still have to say, “it just is what it is”. For the same reason why some people are drawn to football.

In a similar vein, I have it on good authority that you grew up in Nebraska, which was also my home from late childhood through my 20's. Does coming from this particular state, or from the Midwest in general, influence your worldview and work in any way? I have my theories on this, but I'd love to hear yours.

I’ve recently noticed how much it has influenced me and I’ve become aware and sensitive to these skeletons that are buried so deep in my subconscious. A painting I did some years ago is called “The thing on the side of the road to nowhere”. This was from a dream I had where I was riding along down a country road, passing a long repetition of corn and fencepost, until the monotony was broken by a disturbing-hulking figure who I pass by. He doesn’t move or look back, and before you know it he is gone. Dreams like this one and other creative sparks have their roots in the vast countryside of Nebraska. I can’t escape them.


Much like Bradbury, you grew up in the Midwest, and feature children in a lot of your work, or more rightly, a childlike perspective on what is most commonly described as horror and dark fantasy/fable. Is this a conscious decision, this more innocent POV on often very dark things, or does it just work out that way when you sit down to create?

This is something I’m trying to figure out. Digging deep inside myself to uncover where this expression comes from naturally, and what is the cause that changes this perspective. In the past few years, my work has become more mature and structured. This isn’t necessarily bad, just different. I’m trying to find why this change occurred and looking for the innocence that came so naturally in my earlier work. Soul searching.

Music seems to play an important part in your life, and most likely your creative process. What sort of music to you enjoy most, and what are some of the bands and artists that provide the best personal soundtrack?

My taste in music is extremely vast and eclectic. If I were to put together a soundtrack for my life, the tracks would play as follow: Early sounds would consist of Christian hymns sung by a somber choir and 70s country like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn. Country would continue throughout my youth until middle school where popular 80s would permeate, including The Police, Stray Cats, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Miller Band. Late 80s would introduce a rebellion with songs from The Cure, Bauhaus, The Smiths and the Clash. Soundtracks from Danny Elfman would fill a dimly lit bedroom where I drew endlessly. Nirvana’s Nevermind and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine were essentials. Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, The Cramps, Rob Zombie, and The Misfits are just some of the bands that would fill the space. In the early 2000s I found interest in bebop jazz, big band and delta blues. This would bring me full circle to now, when I’m listening to a lot of Country, Gospel, folk, bluegrass, blues and roots music.

If you could do one project, in any medium, with an unlimited budge and applicable rights, what would that be?

My current interests are in focusing on children’s and young adult books. I would like to get some of my own stories written and published by top publishers and create illustrated books that will remain classics throughout the test of time. It might not sound exciting for some, but my heart is set on a simpler life, focused on family, road trips and soaking up literature. I want to move out to the country and build a sanctuary where all my dark thoughts can be unleashed as published masterpieces for children and youthful adults to enjoy.


That sounds like a little bit of heaven, right there... Before you head to the country, what advice would you give to fellow visual artists, both new and veteran (and possibly long struggling)? How can they best balance enjoyment of what they do, with a hopeful paycheck for doing what they love?

Know who you are and stay on this path. Your career is not a time for exploration. Experimentation is fine and pushing the boundaries is applauded. But do so only with a clear and confident sense of self.

Tell us a little about your recent deal with Scholastic involving your interpretation of the classic children's song Old MacDonald. 

Old MacDonald is the most sincere and pure book I’ve ever worked on. In the past, I would turn down a job like this if it were proposed to me. Almost two years ago, my wife gave birth to our son. This single event has changed my life completely. As soon as he was able to communicate, it was obvious he had an obsession with Old MacDonald and farm life. I am passionately doing this book for him.

What can you tell us about the untitled picture book you also recently sold?

Scholastic purchased Old MacDonald as a two picture book deal. The second book is yet to be decided, but it will also be based on an old folk song.

What else is on the dark horizon, in terms of projects and plans?

I have a few books that are just goodhearted children’s books that I want to see published. I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my career rebelling against the industry and childishly producing material to conflict with their structure. That is not the reason to produce dark works. I want to find grace within the industry, favor among the libraries and publishing houses, and then work with them to bring my own macabre stories to the pubic with their support.

Thanks again, Gris, for stopping by The Cosmicomicon. We wish you enormous success with your many exciting projects.

Thank you for having me.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Review News: The Nameless Dark receives stellar treatment in The Haunted Omnibus


After writing everything other than fiction for so many years, I still have a hard time processing the fact that people will sit down and devote hours and hours to reading stories I write, then feel moved enough to compose extensive, detailed, thoughtful reviews on these stories, with the primary purpose of helping draw more readership to certain books and authors. It's a wonderful thing.

Writer Jose Cruz did just this, and posted up one of my favorite reviews The Nameless Dark has ever received at his excellent electronic journal devoted to short dark fiction, The Haunted Omnibus, which is what The Cosmicomicon would be if I was a better reviewer, had better focus, and better taste in blog template design.

Its Mission Statement:
The Haunted Omnibus was established to recognize the long tradition and continued perseverance of the short form within the literature of horror, the dark fantastic, and the Weird. 
Although websites, journals, and awards dedicated to the field and yearly anthologies of the best in short fiction continue to proliferate, the founders of the Haunted Omnibus felt that there was still a need for a space dedicated solely to the discussion of dark short stories, novelettes, and novellas. 
Reviews of anthologies and single-author collections, by their nature, tend to relegate even the exemplary stories to one or two sentences of critical analysis at best, if any mention is warranted at all. The Haunted Omnibus seeks to in part turn this trend around by providing the attention and appreciation that these short works deserve. 
Taking its name from the landmark 1937 anthology edited by Alexander Laing, The Haunted Omnibus provides reviews, essays, and just-plain-fun testimonials of the short horror story’s power, history, and relevance. In this spirit, our single-story spotlights strive to include tributes made by multiple contributors and, when possible, short interviews conducted with the authors to detail their creation of the stories. 
It is our hope that through our efforts at the Haunted Omnibus, fans and readers will engage more deeply with darkly speculative short fiction and afford it the study that it merits.

Edward Gorey
I'll provide an excerpt of the review here, but please do head over to The Haunted Omnibus and poke around a bit:
"We live in a time of plenty. 
In the last decade and change, the rise of small publishing houses and e-reader devices has opened up a doorway through which a veritable smorgasbord of dark fiction has poured forth into the hands of fans who might not have otherwise encountered them. But not even the accessibility or mass proliferation of grim literature can be held entirely accountable for the embarrassment of riches we have today. A similar wave passed during the Great Horror Boom of the 70s and 80s, but the current renaissance we live in now has granted us the gift of quality in addition to quantity. 
This commitment to higher literary standards, along with a special devotion to the short story, has led to the releases of dozens of books in the last few years that all bear the craftsman’s seal of approval, a time when even debut collections hum with a vitality and talent that wouldn’t have been dreamt of in those bygone days of spinner rack terrors. With the unleashing of The Nameless Dark, T. E. Grau has cemented himself as an author whose byline should spark in readers a joyful expectancy for what surprises there are to follow.

Having spent his early days grinding away in the Hollywood dream machine, Grau has instilled the stories collected here with a cinematic beat and tenor. Many of them have the feel of miniature epics, stories of great change that course the classical arc and find his cast of rebels and hard-hearts attempting to desperately pick their way through life’s minefield before butting up against the high-powered electric fence of the unforgiving cosmos. Even at their bleakest—and many of the tales end badly for at least one person—Grau’s works satisfy with the rightness of their narratives, the feeling that the scales of the universe have attained their balance once more regardless of the insignificant lives that were overthrown to do so..."
John Picacio
(4/22/16 edit: Please also check out an author interview published today at The Haunted Omnibus here)

Monday, February 22, 2016

TC Review & Interview: Definitely Monsters - Ray Cluley wows with debut collection of short fiction, PROBABLY MONSTERS



When I found out that Probably Monsters was Ray Cluley's first collection of short fiction, I was frankly a bit shocked. With the amount of times I'd seen his name included in anthologies, high end dark fiction journals, award lists (he won a British Fantasy Award in 2013 for Best Short Story and has garnered other accolades and honors), and year-end Best Ofs, I figured he had several dozen stories penned and a few collections under his belt.

But no, and so much the better, because Cluley has allowed himself time to write, ruminate upon, then cull the best work from his oeuvre, which plays to the benefit of us his readers, as he presents twenty brilliantly crafted stories that range vastly in setting, tone, subgenre, and even genre itself. Paul Tremblay recently wrote in an interview he conducted with Peter Straub for the Los Angeles Review of Books that Straub is now entering his fifth decade of "blurring genre and literary fiction." Blurring. I like that. Cluley does this, as well. I'm sure many of the great dark fiction and horror writers, or at least the ones I most admire and enjoy, do that these days.

Clulely writes British, and he writes American, and he writes as if he's a native of nowhere and everywhere at the same time. He's deft with his language, balanced, showing enough poetry to woo you while never slathering on so much cologne that you're running for the exit once you move in close. His is a strong, confident, beautiful voice, enhancing the telling while never getting in the way of the interesting plotting and characters, pulling up all the sadness and horror and guts of this world and others beyond it and laying it out for us to ponder. In short, it's the ideal voice of contemporary literature. That he happens to also write about monsters of every species is just the cherry on top. I prefer my literature topped with monsters, don't you?

Probably Monsters roars from the gates with a snarl, as the opening story "All Change" is a powerhouse start to the collection, and fitting, as it features a smorgasbord of creative and horrific beasties. You can see Cluley's mind running wild a bit, having fun creating creatures of all shapes, sizes, and textures. The boy playing monsters. I loved the big H Horror of this story, and how it shifts the mind into a particular setting for what is assumed to come.

This mindset is immediately challenged by "I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing," which is more of a quiet literary piece, taking place in Nicaragua and centering around the dangers of the free diving lobster industry, shadowed by native superstition. An excellent, interesting, melancholy story that could appear in any fine fiction journal anywhere in the world. Hemingway could have written this story if he had a bit more heart and stylistic art, or Hunter Thompson, if he remained sober long enough.

"The Festering" inspired the cover to the collection, and is a dark piece of new weird fantasy. I'm not even sure I know what "new weird" is, but it somehow seems to fit this tale of a teenager girl who whispers all of her secrets into her bedroom desk, while dealing with a desperately lonely mother and the inappropriate attention from the neighbor down the hall. This is one of my favorite stories in Probably Monsters, and is a perfect example of balancing the real with the surreal in one story, offering up brutal truth and the fantastical without sacrificing the impact of either.

"At Night, When the Demons Come" reads like the opening to a gritty, bleak-as-shit horror novel, or even a big Hollywood film. More mainstream and genre-heavy than his other tales to this point, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world reminiscent of McCarthy's The Road, albeit a version of the story menaced by a plague of winged succubae instead of your garden variety hungry hungry humans.

"Night Fishing" was the first story I read by Cluley back in the pages of the tragically departed Shadows & Tall Trees. After reading this tale of a man tasked with fishing the bodies of Golden Gate Bridge suicide victims from the San Francisco Bay on the overnight shift, I was immediately hooked. "Night Fishing" has the feel of an instant classic, like the sort of story you're taught in university English classes, when the themes get more challenging, and the tone more bleak. Another one of my favorites in this collection.

"The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina" is another punishing story full of sadness and horror, dealing with the survivors of cars accidents and how one deals with personal survival and the loss of loved ones; while Cluley returns to that new weird territory with "Bloodcloth," which is a dark bit of near future fantasy that puts one in the mind of China Mieville or Michael Swanwick.

"Pins and Needles" is piece of dark literature that explores broken people, and how they act out. I'm not real wild about the ending, but the main character is so fascinating, not to mention his relationship with a woman he meets on the bus, that this story stands out as a highlight of Probably Monsters.

The next three pieces stand as an exceptional trio that can survive in a supernatural vacuum, embodying the best of what true horror fiction is about while also able to draw breath in the real world. "Gator Moon" takes us to the American south, and again - much like in "I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing" - plays with local folklore while addressing deep seated issues of race, inequality, recompense, and revenge. "Where the Salmon Run" is another favorite of mine, full of melody and sadness and regret, set amid a backdrop of the brutal, raw boned beauty of Kamchatka's salmon streams in eastern Russia. "Indian Giver" brings us back to the New World (where Cluley also sets "No More West"), and explores the clumsy horrors unleashed upon the native people of the Americas, and some that are unleashed in return. This story was selected for Ellen Datlow's upcoming Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, marking Cluley's third time appearing in this  renowned series ("Bones of Crow" appeared in Volume 6, and "At Night, When the Demons Come" was chosen for Volume 3).

And these are just the standouts, the real humdingers amongst twenty quality tales. A few didn't quite make it for me, but even in the ones that missed the mark, you can see the creativity, the freshness. The natural ability seasoned by the work put in. Each one deserves a close reading, much contemplation, and an enormous amount of respect.

Ray Cluley's Probably Monsters is an important collection of contemporary horror fiction. It's a deep, complex, coffee-black book with bite and heat and fragrance and several punches to the temple, and pushpins to the soul. This is true front of table stuff, and comes highly, highly recommended.
________________________________________________________________________


TC: Your stories are definitely horror and supernatural (and several other dark and brutal adjectives), but in this era of maddeningly applied labels, the wider world of letters could certainly brand many of the stories in Probably Monsters as "literary fiction," such as "I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing," "Gator Moon," "Where the Salmon Run," and even "Pins and Needles." What are your thoughts about "genre fiction" and "literary fiction," and where do you think you fit in these comfy boxes (if anywhere)?

RC: I don’t mind labels all that much, they can be useful things, perhaps most of all for letting bookshops know where to put a writer’s work to attract customers. There are problems, though. It’s unlikely you’ll find a book on two shelves, for example, even when it fits both categories, and that’s where it begins to bother me - when labels come to define a text as a whole. With ebooks it’s not so bad as you can tag several labels to it (at least, I think so, and if not why not?) which is useful because labels on their own do come heavily loaded with assumptions and stereotypes. And there can be a kind of snobbery I don’t like, the idea that not only can a label can provide a neat little box but that one box is somehow better than another. By all means prefer something, but don’t (mis)judge the quality of something else based on that preference.

Horror suffers for this a great deal, I think, and in part a lot of that is probably due to terrible horror films rather than written fiction. People hear “horror” but they see bloody violence and/or hideous (often laughable) monsters. I must admit, I rather like these films but I don’t tend to read this kind of horror. It’s out there, and some of it is well written, it’s just not for me. Unfortunately, others who feel similarly then lump all horror together and don’t try anything else in the genre. And of all the genres, it’s actually the one least likely to be easily contained by the restrictions of a label - that’s often the point! Society is able to exist and function because of labels and rules and regulations, expectations, all of that, but horror is a genre that purposefully deconstructs this, or parts of it at least. That’s often where the horror is, the disruption of the norm. Horror delights in taking away the safety net, waving it at your face to show you it’s gone, then discarding it while you try to stay balanced on a very thin mental tightrope. Then, if it’s really good horror fiction, it shakes the rope, too.

The people that dismiss horror simply don’t understand it properly, if you ask me (which you have). They don’t recognise its strengths or see its possibilities.

Literary fiction suffers just as much for misconception, I think. It’s easy to dismiss it as the kind of fiction that deals with “real life”, that turns something mundane or commonplace into art. Again, it’s the snobbery that bothers me, thinking literary fiction is more important because it does this kind of thing. Because it addresses current affairs, politics, relatable personal traumas and dramas.

However, horror does all of this, too.

It’s also a misconception to think that literary fiction always provides strong, admirable prose. A lot of it does, but not all of it. Similarly, don’t go dismissing horror for lacking this quality because it doesn’t. I love (some) literary fiction. I love (some) horror. I’d really love to think I’m doing both with my writing, but even that suggests falling for the label trap, ‘I write horror stories but in a literary way’ is just as bad as those literary writers who tell you they don’t write genre stuff when they do.

Personally, I tend to think of ‘literary’ as writing that does more on the page then you may at first think. Writing that in fact offers a non-literal reading as well through the use of figurative language, symbols, silences. In this sense it’s more technique than genre, an approach rather than a category.

We're quite sure you had your choice of publishers for Probably Monsters. How did you get hooked up with Chizine?

Probably Monsters was a long time getting to people. It was set to be published back in 2011/12, with a limited run of 13 lovely deluxe copies, 100 hardbacks, and then trade paperbacks and ebooks, all of that, and all very exciting. Then there was a restructure within that publishing company and the submission process had to begin again. It was still with several other publishers too, thankfully, as I didn’t want to pull it from consideration until contracts had been signed, and one of those was ChiZine.
Ray & Hardware
Michael Kelly of Undertow was very helpful in bringing Probably Monsters to their attention (he wasn’t publishing collections at that time, just the marvelous Shadows & Tall Trees). He set up introductions for me and championed the book and I’ll always be very grateful to him for that. At World Fantasy 2013 he introduced me in person to Sandra and Brett and I was lucky enough to win the British Fantasy Award at that same event and very quickly after that received my acceptance email. I was thrilled, not only because they produce gorgeous books but because they’ve published many of my favourite writers, such as Robert Shearman, Gemma Files, and Helen Marshall. I still have quite a wish list of ChiZine books I want to buy and it keeps getting bigger, so I’m very happy to be in such company.

Many of these stories, while fully fantastical, also seem intensely personal. How much of yourself did you put into Probably Monsters? Do you find it difficult to write about circumstances that are close to you, no matter how well they are disguised in a story?

I find it difficult to write personal stuff into my fiction, and I rarely do it on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway. There are plenty who will say that all writing is autobiographical, and I suppose there’s an element of truth in that, to some degree, but I’ve always been reluctant to set myself down on paper in any obvious or intentional way. ‘Night Fishing’ is one exception, but only regarding the theme. I do write about my own fears and anxieties, the emotional issues I find troubling, only I address them through others. As with ‘A Mother’s Blood’. There’s some of me in ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’ though, and ‘Shark! Shark!’ is closest to my actual voice, probably, but otherwise my stories are definitely filters rather than mirrors.

It’s something I would like to change, though. I have a lot of admiration for the work of Steven Dines, he writes stories of beautiful intimacy where the heart pumps the words to the page, and if those aren’t personal then he does a wonderful job of making it seem so. I’d like to try to do the same because stories like that really resonate with me. There’s a kind of emotional echo to them that makes the story feel like it’s greater than the sum of its parts, there’s none of that disconnect between the reader and character you sometimes get that makes it seem like you’re just watching things happen via printed words, rather than feeling them, too. I’m not saying you can only get this by writing something personal, just that there’s a lot to learn from the process. I always feel like there’s a lot to learn from other writers. If I ever stop thinking that then please kill me as it’ll mean I’ve become an arrogant asshole.

"All Change" seems like a great way to start out your collection, considering the title of the book, and the content of the story. Was this an intentional move?

Yeah, that one had to go first. I had my doubts because it’s pretty full-on as to the number of traditional monsters it contains, or the attributes of them, but it was also an acknowledgement of the genre. ‘All Change’ is my love letter to horror (and to Ray Bradbury in particular) so it had to go up front. It also acknowledges horror fans with a few references they’ll recognise (Carcosa, Innsmouth, Endsville, old hoss) which hopefully helps form a relationship with the reader right from the start.

That said, it was also a way of saying, here are the monsters you’re used to, but from here on in I’m going to do things a little differently. Bit pompous, really, thinking about it now. Like I’m trying to claim originality or establish a place in some New Wave. It wasn’t meant to seem that way, more a sort of enthusiastic rubbing together of the hands while exclaiming, “right, my turn…”

I also like the idea of ‘change’ in general when it comes to horror fiction, especially when it’s change for the worse, and especially when it’s a person who changes. In that respect, ‘all change’ sounds mildly like a threat or at least an unpleasant promise. Which isn’t a bad way to begin a horror collection.

A sense of loss permeates this collection, and those who want to perhaps take from others what they have themselves lost. In my review above, I mention a visceral sense of sadness in these stories, which is something you don't hear much about when discussing horror fiction. First of all, do you think this makes sense in terms of how you view your own fiction? And secondly, do you think sadness is a worthy topic of discussion in horror fiction?

Yeah, absolutely, there’s definitely a sense of loss and sadness to many of my stories. In fact, looking at Probably Monsters, I think every single story in there is about loss. My partner still doesn’t think I write horror, really (those bloody labels again, huh?) but that I write sad stories that are usually a bit weird. There’s some truth to that, I think. But loss is one of the most horrible concepts imaginable, and it belongs firmly in the horror genre. The threat of loss can drive entire novels  - loss of life, of a loved one, civilization as we know it, sanity, take your pick – or it can permeate in more subtle ways. With only a few exceptions, such as losing your virginity (but come on, that’s scary too, right?) loss is usually associated with something negative. It suggests the absence of something once treasured, or a missed opportunity. And the idea that something once valued is now gone takes us back to the concept of change discussed in the last question. Change is scary, and change for the worse, which is what loss suggests (at least at first) even more so. Loss is a blue-grey word that darkens to black the longer you think about it, and in that black is where you’ll find the sadness.

There are several stories set in the American west, and the American south (in addition to a half dozen other far flung locales). Do you find creative inspiration in these geographic - and cultural - settings? Did these stories grow out of these regions, or did the regions take shape within the story?

Yeah, I’ve always felt drawn to other places, America in particular. Part of that is undoubtedly because I never feel quite at home where I am, not yet, but mostly it’s because the world’s a huge place and I want to experience as much of it as possible, even if it is only through research. America, though, has always been a big one for me. I think because I read a lot of American fiction growing up and it became the way I experienced the world. I’ve possibly, probably, been sold a lie that way, but it doesn’t matter, it’s too late, the damage is done.

One editor said of my early work that I had a strange transatlantic voice that was like some blurring of British and American. It was tricky to fix, and it’s a shame, in a way, that I even tried to fix it at all. Some people get quite upset over here about Americanisms finding their way into the English language, but the English language has always been like that, stealing from other ones. And American English is actually just English that went a different route, so it’s not even stealing really, more a taking it back after you’ve played with it for a while. But I’m digressing now, so sorry old chap, tickety boo and splendid.

The England that Cluley hates so much
Britain has a lot to offer horror fiction when it comes to landscape and history, of course, and I really really like the sort of folk-horror we have, but I also like the far ranging scope of the American landscape, from mountains to canyons, arctic conditions to deserts, vast open spaces and then the claustrophobic sprawl of the cities. There’s such a variety that it seems silly to turn my back on all that to write only about my own country. I hope that doesn’t sound anti-British, just as I hope I don’t seem an impostor when I write about American places and cultures. I’m always sure to do a lot of research first. I’m a firm believer in know what you write rather than write what you know, and I have a pretty low tolerance for people who believe otherwise. Write what I know? That’ll be British white male working class stuff then. All the time. And pardon me, but fuck that.

From another point of view, and to be rather blunt, there seems to be a lot more to be scared of in America. From something as simple as some of the wildlife you have or the extremes of weather, to something more complex and human like issues of gun control and a buried nuclear arsenal that could turn the planet into a new asteroid belt. I once read a description, quite unkind, that compared America to a baby with a hand grenade. That’s a pretty volatile metaphor to try to unpick, but as an image, for a horror writer, it’s pretty useful.

The baby pulled the pin
Mostly, though, what draws me is the variety of landscapes and people. With only a few exceptions, my stories grow out of those things.

You reference many authors throughout the collection in various ways. Which writers do you count as serious influences, and which ones did you set up as the rabbit in the dog race? Which revered writers do you not connect with as a reader?

Oh, so many inspirations. Usually I skim over them when asked as there are a lot of the same old names you’ll see from other writers but for once I think I’ll go into a bit more detail.

There are a few who inspired me to want to write. The three most responsible were Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and H. P. Lovecraft. King I stumbled across in my school library. It was The Shining, and it opened my eyes wide to what could be done with a book. I was already a keen reader, but this was disturbing stuff and serious and grown up and though I obviously missed a lot of the meaning and significance at that age I could still tell there was something else going on under the story, something important. And how great to realize that books don’t have age certificates on them (give it time…) So I devoured King, and he mentioned Bradbury, and Bradbury was another one of those who said look, come on, look at what words can do. Here were stories that were wildly diverse and deceptively simple and did so much in such a little amount of time. Plus the absolute joy of storytelling is clear in every single one of Bradbury’s stories. I personally can’t read one without coming away wanting to write something myself, and he’s quite possibly my favourite short story writer for that reason: his imagination and skill and enthusiasm inspires me every time. As for Lovecraft, I came to him in a roundabout way via roleplay gaming, actually. I’m not overly fond of the writing style, but the ideas were huge and terrifying and sometimes even a bit silly yet treated with utmost seriousness. Lovecraft showed me a whole load of new things to be frightened of and opened the gates, so to speak, to a terrifying nihilism.

As for who inspired more directly to actually consider writing professionally, that was Michael Marshal Smith. I’d loved his novel One of Us and I followed that with his collection What You Make It and that was when I thought, yes, this is not only what I want to do but what I’m going to actually try to do. I committed to turning my writing hobby into something far more serious having seen how one of the best did it. I wasn’t tricked into thinking it was easy – great writers only make it seem that way – but I had a standard to strive for.

Bad writers inspired me a lot too, around this time. I won’t name names because one man’s junk is another man’s treasure (and writer-bashing just seems unfairly nasty) but there were a couple I read whose work was mediocre and somewhat formulaic and I thought, man, if this guy is getting published I can totally do the same…

As for the rabbits I’ll forever be chasing, those are people like Annie Proux, Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Angela Carter, writers at the top of the food chain. F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the first novel I read that I thought was as near to perfect as a book can be. I felt the same for Close Range, The Road, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Bloody Chamber.

There are a few writers whose reputations confuse me, who receive praise bordering on reverence but only leave scratching my head thinking, really? Again, each to their own. And there are some where I get it, I see the appeal and the skill, but they just don’t do it for me personally. James Ellroy, for example, leaves me cold. I can admire the writing (sometimes) but there’s no emotional heart in it for me personally. To be fair I’ve only read two, LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia, but one was a first go and the next a second chance and after that, sorry, there are too many other writers to try.

Do you see a difference in the approach to horror by British writers and readers compared to those in North America?

I don’t tend to think of the writer much other than to note whether they’re any good. No doubt some aspect of national identity plays a part in how they define themselves, and then maybe some of that gets into the writing, but there’s so much other stuff in the mix that it just seems a bit daft, to me anyway, to try to determine what is British and what is American. I dare say if you take a wide enough sample of British and American writing you’ll see certain similarities and differences, but again you’d need to consider other things as well, like when it was written, and the fact that countries hold a great diverse mix of people, so race and culture too.

Personally, I feel that thanks to the media, to the internet, to combinations of the two, thanks to the ease with which we can travel, boundaries are become less distinct anyway (but hey, I’m that guy with the weird transatlantic voice so what do I know?). And this doesn’t just apply to boundaries of place but also other aspects of identity, like gender and sexuality. What I find incredibly encouraging these days is the recognition that a lot of what we used to use as definitions are in fact more fluid than was first thought, that there are fewer distinct ‘this’ or ‘that’ categories but rather a continuum to which they belong.

In terms of style, medium, genre, size, what haven't you written yet that you're absolutely dying to try?

Well I’ve turned one of my stories into a graphic novel ‘script’ that I’d love to see done. It’s ‘At Night, When the Demons Come’ which appeared in Black Static. Ellen Datlow reprinted it in The Best Horror of the Year and has just announced it’ll be in Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror as well. It’s had a couple of artists interested in the past (who provided some wonderful sample panels and character mock-ups) but it’s a lot of work to do on spec (for them – my bit’s done) so understandably it fell by the wayside. Maybe if I secure a publisher first it’ll happen.

I’d love to write for a computer game. I think that would be a great challenge and a lot of fun. I like the idea of multiple plot strands and different possibilities regarding structures and resolutions, depending on the player.

I also like the idea of trying to write something set in an existing world, tie-in novels for a favourite television series or additions to a favourite film franchise. Again, it’s all about the challenge and wanting to try new things, though in this case it would also be for the chance to pay homage to something I love.

If you could give one bit of advice to horror fiction as a monolithic entity, that would be followed to the letter by each and every individual working in the genre, what would it be? 

Do it with passion. If you don’t, it’ll show. In the quality of the writing, in the uninspired themes, the unoriginal ideas, the heavy-handed ‘message’. It’s advice I’d have liked early on – I’ve churned out stuff I knew was substandard simply because I didn’t rate the venue it would appear in or because the payment (or lack thereof) barely justified the effort. That’s terrible, and I’m ashamed to admit it. Now I simply don’t submit anything if that’s the case - better that, than write something I can’t be proud of entirely.

What would you like to say about horror fiction to those who either haven't come across it in a while, or never bothered to take a look in the first place?

Try it. It might not be (and likely isn’t) quite what you expect.

What are you working on at the moment, and what can readers expect in the near term?

Something new that I’m doing and enjoying right now is putting together a resource pack for GCSE English students (high school English?) which is all about how to write for different audiences and purposes, only each one is built around the idea of a zombie apocalypse. So they write a newspaper article, a short story, a speech, things like that, all linked to a bigger connective plot. I’d have loved doing that when I was at school. Hell, I’m loving it now.

I’m always working on a few things at once, though. At the moment I’m also finishing up a few new stories, a couple for anthologies and some just for me as I’m hoping to get another collection together this year. I’m also writing a short ‘mosaic’ novel of four interconnected stories (sort of) based around Marilyn Monroe (sort of). If that sounds a bit confusing it’s because it is. I owe someone a novella, too, so of course I’ve started three.

Thanks so much for spending some time at The Cosmicomicon. We're big fans, and wish you much continued success and prosperity heading into 2016.

Thank you very much – it’s been my pleasure.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

TC Review & Interview: Paul Tremblay turns the possession story inside out with A Head Full of Ghosts, one of the hit horror novels of 2015



I'd imagine it takes a lot to scare Stephen King. Not that horror writers are fearless. Far from it. I've found them to be - and they've told me that they are - some of the biggest scaredy cats on the planet. People often obsess over what bothers them, and horror writers are no different. But all that aside, and going on Mr. King's own words ("I'm pretty hard to scare") when Stephen King, the unrivaled sitting Monarch and Standard Bearer of Horror and someone who deals with spooks and frights on a second by second basis, declares in a Tweet that a book "scared the living hell" out of him, it's a really big deal. Like, a huge friggin' deal.

The book Mr. King was talking about - as you may have guessed by now, courtesy of the title of this piece and the huge cover image above - is A Head Full of Ghosts, written by Paul Tremblay, long a well-regarded and highly respected writer of horror, crime, and the bizarre, who broke into the big leagues with his latest novel, and threatens to rise even higher with his forthcoming book (Disappearance at Devil's Rock).

By all markers that count, A Head Full of Ghosts is a full-on critical darling and commercial hit, a Platinum Record in the horror genre that will live on in coming years on bookshelves, and - dark gods willing - on the silver screen. Like every writer, every book longs to be immortal, and A Head Full of Ghosts has already achieved immortality as an important work of contemporary horror fiction in the most unassuming way possible - by being fresh and well written, without resorting to cheap tricks and bugling. This is the solid stuff of horror, not the sordid stuff. This is shoulder blade material, on which others will gain strength, and someday perhaps stand to cast their view to new dark horizons. Freshly minted foundation literature of a genre that needs new bedrock bricks as the older ones show their age.

In A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay shows his admiration for horror fiction, and even his warm affection for it. But he also shows that he's not slavish in his regard. He treats it with the respect that it has earned, not handling it with kid gloves, nor treating it like a special needs genre that will stumble more than it achieves. He expects a lot, and he gets it. Must be the teacher in him. The father. The expert horror writer.

He also shows his love of pop culture, skewering it whilst having fun with the whole concept of instant media covering instant media. Blogs that now serve as our glowing newspaper replacements. Personalities with opinions rather than grizzled reporters. Reality shows becoming our own personal reality, in an age where it seems that everyone will star in their own show at least once in their life. In this case, exposing a strange and growing mystery that might be a demonic possession to the heated gazes of camera lens and insatiable television viewer more out of necessity than narcissism, which makes it all the more tragic when things start to go South. And boy do they ever...

In short, A Head Full of Ghosts is a post-irony exploration of the horror genre, social media, reality television voyeurism, and the inner workings of a seemingly normal, working class family that has fallen on hard times and harbors secrets from each other, and the world. Simple right? Tremblay makes it appear so, as he's just that deft of a writer.

But Tremblay is sly about it. He doesn't show his cards, nor shake his tail feathers. He's modest about what he has, what he's doing, giving a knowing grin rather than jumping up on the table and shouting about it. This is quiet, confident, seamless writing that allows the reader to corkscrew down into a story and remain there until the bitter, bitter end.

This is clear from the rather straight-forward set-up of the novel, which begins with a young woman, Merry Barrett, recounting the horrifying events of her childhood to an author interested in writing a tell-all expose about the supposed possession, and exorcism, of Merry's older sister Marjorie, an experience which was filmed by a camera crew and made into a reality television series titled "The Possession."

But through these flashbacks told from Merry's POV, juxtaposed with a episodic breakdown provided by snarky horror blogger Karen Brissette, the reasons behind the exorcism, and the invitation to the intrusive camera crew into the lives of the Barrett family, become more murky, and more difficult to either cheer on or discount, as each undertaking has the power of logic and reasonable desperation behind them. Even the smallest details and potential pitfalls are worked out ahead of time by Tremblay, making the supernatural or possibly unbelievable easily authentic, and layering each character and their motivations. Narrative is bent, and narrators are biased according to their own unique universes, often rendering unreliable what we assumed as fact.

What all of this melds into is a fascinating examination of personal motivation, selfishness, vanity, and the erosion of mental stability, layered within a classic horror story. A Head Full of Ghosts is all of these things, as well as a commentary on the supernatural, religion, the power of myth, and the sometimes watery nature of truth. And it's a hell of a thrill ride, with a gut punch ending. Just ask Stephen King. Poor fella hasn't slept right in months.
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TC: From where did the initial germ of A Head Full of Ghosts: A Novel originate? Did its general plot and themes surprise you, or was it planned to deal with these elements all along?

PT: In February of 2013, I was spinning my tires, 100 pages into a novel that satirized the state of publishing through a boy obsessed with ending the world. The writing was very slow going but I was reading anything and everything I could get my hands on that might be related to apocalypse and end-of-world scenarios. I stumbled up a book of essays on the film The Exorcist. Bad Religion’s song “My Head Is Full of Ghosts” was ringing in my head too. It occurred to me then that there had been recent and successful literary updates of the zombie, vampire, and werewolf, but not many possession novels, even though Hollywood has continued to pump out the PG-13 exorcist-light fare.

I keep all these little notebooks around (and too often misplace) to jot down ideas, characters, and the like. I wrote “Horror Novel” at the top of page one in a notebook I hadn’t used yet. I imagined a family in dire financial trouble dealing with a maybe-possessed child, and that clicked with me. Soon after I had my two sisters, Merry and Marjorie and I knew the story would be ambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural (is she or is she not possessed?). I got lucky and the rest of the themes and structure were in place quickly too. I didn’t write a summary or outline, but before writing word one of the novel, I knew there would be an author interviewing Merry, a reality TV show, and a blog commenting on the action, and I knew what I wanted to happen to the family in end. All I had to figure out was how the me and  the Langans Barretts would get there.

(In my first draft, the Barretts were the family Langan, with John and Sarah as parents. I changed the last name at the end figuring that would’ve been too much winky wink. And I was right.)

The reaction to the novel has been incredibly positive, and a joy to watch, for many reasons. Did you know at the time of either the start of the book or the finish that you had a legitimate hit on your hands?

Thank you, Ted.

I felt really good about the novel at the start. I mean, really good. No Sleep Till Wonderland had come out three years prior in 2010, and the sting of its lack of success and lack of publisher support (by lack, I mean less than goddamn nothing) for the book really shook my confidence as a writer. I didn’t feel good about myself, my writing, and was second guessing everything I did. But when I had the idea for AHFoG, I felt energized again and I knew as long as I didn’t get in my own way and muck it all up, I’d have a good novel.

That’s not to say I never doubted myself. Doesn’t matter if I’m writing a novel, short story, or an essay, there’s always a moment where I think the work is going terribly and the do-I-quit-or-keep-going? doubt/questions arise. For novels, it tends to happen around page 100. Also, my agent, after reading those first 100 pages of AHFoG was initially skeptical of the book’s POV and structure, which kind of threw me for a loop. But after a few days of self pity, I said screw it and forged on because I really believed in what I had and what it would be. To my agent’s credit, once he read the full final draft he said he was wrong and loved the book. It’s always okay to admit when you’re wrong, kids.

I had no idea if it would be a hit or even if it would sell (especially given my previous sales track record), but I believed in it. I really liked this book. Loved it, even. It was something that I would want to read. Ultimately, that’s my measuring stick. I can’t forecast the market well enough to make predictions about sales and the like; therein lies madness. The book was as close to being what I’d hoped it would be when I started, so I was pleased, and nervously excited about its possibilities.

What do you and Stephen King talk about when you take walks together?

There’s no talking allowed. He’s trying to teach me to communicate via telepathy. I worry though. Our walks are getting longer and longer.

With you being the father of a tween girl, was it difficult writing the more graphic scenes of possession involving Marjorie?

When I wrote the novel, my daughter was essentially Merry’s age (8 going on 9). I had her (and my son) as models for Merry. For Marjorie, I extrapolated, and I’ve been teaching teens for longer than I care to admit. My hope is that when my daughter is old enough to read it, she’ll identify and empathize with both sisters. I hope that people view Marjorie not as a monster/devil/demon, but as a compelling and sad character. I feel terrible for Marjorie. Whatever is happening to her is not her fault, and the adults attempting to intervene make it all worse.

In general, I find it’s always difficult to write graphic scenes because I want them to have an impact beyond the ick factor. That’s not easy to do, or do well. Hopefully those scenes work. Throughout the novel, I operated under the idea or mantra that the actions of the family members, of what they do to themselves and to each other would be described realistically and in great detail, and those scenes, the ones less likely to be supernaturally enhanced (shall we say), would be the most disturbing scenes in the novel.

Utilizing such zeitgeisty elements as reality television, blogs, and a bankrupt blue collar job market, what do you want to say with A Head Full of Ghosts? (if anything other than just wanting to tell a gripping tale) 

I wanted to SAY ALL THE THINGS!!!!  If I’m being obnoxious (which, let’s be honest, is most of the time), I describe the book as a secular, postmodern, feminist exorcism novel. The opportunity was there within the story for all sorts of commentary: how girls/women are often portrayed in possession stories, commentary on organized religion and its treatment of women, media and the information age and their cumulative effect on us, the disappearing blue collar class etc. Hopefully all of it becomes this monstrous mass crushing the Barretts, making everything worse, and the horror of the novel is witnessing what happens to them under all that if not familiar then frighteningly plausible pressure.

Any news on the cinematic front? Are you involved in the adaptation of the novel to a screenplay?

There are two screenwriters (Benjamin Davis Colllins and Luke Piotrowski) working the adaptation as we speak. I am not officially or contractually involved, but they’ve been great about keeping me in the loop and answering questions about the development process. Ben and Luke and the producers all are very excited and hopeful about the project. Go team!

In your forthcoming novel, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, you again center on the lives and consequences of teenagers, and the danger they can attract. What about that age group interests you as a writer of dark or horror fiction?

Who among us can’t remember how exciting, mystifying, and terrifying it was to be kid/teenager? Being that age is one of the few transformative, universal experiences we all share.

I think writing young characters is a strength of mine because I still feel like a confused teen most of the time. I’ve been a teacher most of my adult life and I have two kids of my own so I’ve either been a kid or been around kids, and I almost always have my summers off.

Unreliable narrators or confessions play a role in both books, as well. Is this a literary construct that you enjoy using and intentionally employed, or has it been intrinsically essential to both stories?

AHFoG had to be first person. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We needed to have Merry’s story be ambiguous because it was ambiguous for her. It had been changed and filtered by time, by media, by what other people told her, and by her own faulty memory. Plus, first person narrators are inherently unreliable. It’s a biased POV, and any first person account, if done well, takes advantage of that. I love me first person, yes I do.

DaDR is a third person limited novel with a little first person sprinkled in here and there. Instead of the unreliable narrator, we have a whole cast of unreliable characters. It’s about your friends and loved ones being unreliable. How can you possibly know what they’re thinking, what kind of decisions they will make, are they telling the truth, do they know if they’re telling the truth?

 With A Head Full of Ghosts making such waves, has there been any early cross-media activity with Disappearance at Devil's Rock in terms of film or television?

No, nothing yet. It's still early. I only just sent the book to my film agent a few days ago. So, we'll see.

My son is planning on helping me film a little book trailer for DaDR, though. I think it’ll be good. Or unintentionally funny. Which would still be good.

How has working with major publishers differed from working primarily in small press? In your experience, how is horror fiction viewed in the larger publishing world, outside of closely knit genre fiction circles?

My first experience with major publishers wasn’t so hot. I had two wonderful editors for the Mark Genevich books, both of whom helped those books be the best books they could be from an editing standpoint, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that. But, without getting into too much woe-is-me detail, the support of the publisher overall just wasn’t there, particularly with the second book.

Working with Jennifer Brehl and William Morrow has been an absolute dream come true. Jen is an amazingly intelligent, insightful, and creative editor, one who always asks me the right questions with answers that have lead to the two best books I’ve written. The publicity and marketing team have been incredibly supportive, creative, and enthusiastic as well.


I’ve certainly enjoyed working with Brett and Sandra and Chizine Publications as well, and how much creative control they allow their authors. Their books are beautiful and original and I’m very proud to be in the CZP stable. I would certainly work with them again.

As far as how horror is viewed in the larger publishing world? I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest. There seems to be more excitement and acceptance of it, particularly with readers. My experience is somewhat anecdotal, but I can’t tell you how many times I see an online reviewer who isn’t clued into the small press horror community talking about wanting to read more horror and they’re pleased to stumble across my book. Readers want the kind of stuff we (the royal we) want to read and write, it’s just a matter of getting those books into their hands. Here’s hoping that many more authors crossover from the smaller presses to the larger ones. I want all of you (the royal you) talented folks to have access to more readers. This includes you, Ted, my handsome doppelganger….

Okay, now The Cosmicmicon is blushing, which isn't easy for a non corporeal cyberspace presence... Now fully recovered, we'd like to ask what's next for you? What are your short- and long-term goals now that you've taken that next step in your writing career?

Survive the school year gauntlet of January and February. I owe some editors a few short stories, so those need to be written. Both part of my short term and long term goals: I plan on pitching a couple of books to my publisher very soon. If they go for it, then well, I’ll be busy in the short term and long term. Happily so.

Thanks so much, Paul. We very much appreciate you taking the time to hang out at The Cosmicomion, and wish you boundless success in your future endeavors.

Thank you, Ted!