Tuesday, April 3, 2012

TC Book Review & Interview: Simon Strantzas Brings The Horror Home in 'Nightingale Songs' for Dark Regions Press

The genre of popular literature commonly known as Supernatural or Horror Fiction is going through somewhat of a Renaissance these days, and in doing so, its practitioners, consumers, and overall celebrants threaten to unknowingly abandon part of Horror Fiction's past in favor of a seemingly new incarnation that is really just the same creature dressed in a different set of clothing.  Smaller hats and longer sleeves, to hide the scars and the rad tattoos purchased back in more classic yet looser time.  A time before irony and paralyzing self consciousness. 

Slasher cinema and the "YA-ing" of centuries-old supernatural creatures and tropes seems to be one of the biggest culprits in this unspoken yet readily apparent re-branding, but so too are the pop culture success stories of certain writers of "horror books" that sometimes cut as deep as a Bic razor, with scars that last about as long.  In an unrelated artistic field, it brings to mind so many modern/hipster bands fleeing the sexy, dangerous roots of rock 'n roll, so as not to be associated with the embarrassing lipstick and Aqua Net years of super popular hair metal.  The sad part of this is that rock music will always be rock music, and the swagger and smoke of its founding should never be fully forgotten, even if it eventually wore spandex.

Put it simply (and with far less digression):  Horror is out.  The Weird is in.

Indeed, Horror or Supernatural Fiction is now better known to fledgling readers as Weird Fiction.  I, too, am guilty of aiding this re-christening of that tasty miasma of Dark Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Fiction as a monolithic product better known as The Weird, for reasons that have as much to do with interpretation as they do with a lazy sort of short hand (Speculative Fiction is also an increasingly popular catch-all phrase, also liberally employed by yours truly... I'm nothing if not honest).

With that clumsily rendered primer expressed, I'd like to announce Simon Strantzas as an unabashed champion of straight up Horror Fiction, and for that, he should be applauded.  He should also be applauded for his own unsettling tales and contributions to the above, which are meditative explorations of the dark and chilling, which touch on diverse foundational points that make up the creaking yet sturdy skeleton of Horror past, present, and future.  He kicks stereotypes in the nuts with his clean, confident carving of the subtle bizarre that doesn't dance on the horizon, but does a jerky, beady-eyed soft shoe through your living room during Sunday family dinner.  He isn't a barking merchant of swirling, universal doom.  He's whispered death amongst the hydrangeas in your own goddamn backyard.  He's a '57 Chevy, a Colt six shooter.  He's a Horror writer.

Strantzas, the Toronto-based, British Fantasy Award-nominated author of the critically hailed Cold to the Touch (currently out of print and selling privately for upwards of $170) and Beneath the Surface, recently released his anticipated third collection, Nightingale Songs, which explores all those great themes that make up great Horror Fiction - madness, ghosts, hauntings, misshapen freaks, deadly creatures, old houses that are a threat by their very lean and aspect.  Strantzas' horror unspools in the bedroom, the musty basement, the decrepit hotel room, that claustrophobic cabin in the woods, in the backstage area of that poorly lit nightclub, around that piano that always sits empty.  He has an introspective, sometimes existential style, deeply exploring the mental and physical breakdown that often manifest before or because of some jarring, unexplainable event.  The outside world rarely invades these intimate scenes, nor is it effected by the terrible things that occur... at least not yet.  What is effected are those few, intertwined individuals caught in this strange, terrifying nightmare without end or rational resolution other than oblivion.

In Nightingale Songs, Strantzas' horror can be nameless, but rarely is it from the stars.  Insanity lurks, but it comes not from ageless, whispering gods from another dimension.  These terrors creep from someplace far closer - from the nearby wilderness, from across the street, or even from within.  His monsters are those that lurk in the dark, ignored places, both inside us and out.  Danger to ourselves and those we love - which, for my money, is the heart of all Horror - has no one single origination, nor any real solution, creating a frustration of dread, of the grinding inevitable that the protagonist is powerless to change.  Much like Alfred Hitchcock took great relish in horrorizing those mundane, often comforting things we deal with every day (a bathroom shower, a flock of birds, an innocuous chat with an old friend), so too does Strantzas inject the bizarre into the commonplace, with devastating results.

He bends supernaturality (if I may coin a word) to its breaking point, but doesn't snap it, allowing the Horror he writes - no matter how fantastic or shocking the outcome - to assume the trappings of reality.  This stuff could happen, he'll have us believe, and MUST, to people who seem familiar enough to be glaring back at us in the mirror each day.  This isn't fantasy casting, folks.  This is the PTA, the corner table of muttering hipsters, the person sleeping next to you.  Strantzas' characters have deep, meaningful, loving relationships (a rarity in Horror, it seems), steady jobs, friends and family.  They are us, which makes what happens to them/us all the more visceral.  These twelve tales place horror on our lap, daggers wrapped in velvet.

To again parallel Hitchcock, Strantzas creates a thinking person's style of Horror and Weird (sorry) Fiction that is patient and trusting enough to let the audience connect the pattern in the wood grain, and write the coda in their own mind long after the nightingale's song has ended.  That is the essence of Horror - that personal, insidious presentation that inspires an unsettling mindfuck created unconsciously but no less powerfully by the mind of the readers themselves.  Once the door is opened, we always scare ourselves best.  Simon Strantzas, bless him, opens many doors.

In Nightingale Songs, Strantzas' stories run the dusky gamut, drawing in varied notes and thematic flourishes from around the creepy spectrum like jaunty, oddly grinning pianist working the ivories (as an aside:  pianos feature in two of the stories in this collection, and somehow Strantzas has permanently knocked the docile instrument out of alignment and left it forever latently menacing).  In "Pale Light in the Jungle," Strantzas comments on the stultifying power of television and other technological noise, the eeriness of new quiet, and how boredom and apathetic rot masked by electronic media can have dire consequences.  "The Nightingale" and "Something New", while differing greatly plot-wise, both share veins of longing turned to unexpected obsession, and are just as unnerving and Weird as anything you'll read today.  These are two grisly, Lynchian nightmares bolstered by a Ligottian backbeat, set in Midtown of Anytown and yet No Town where I'd want to live, but probably do.  "Her Father's Daughter" embraces classic Horror themes and situations from both the page and screen (car breakdown on abandoned road, cell phone trouble, creepy-ass farm house) with a dash of the supernatural, and while the setting is chilling, I wanted a bit more out of the ending.

I don't think I'm alone in saying that Strantzas is at his best when constructing his tales atop the relationship scaffolding built between a man and a woman, which are often quite powerful and surprisingly passionate.  This is refreshing, as one doesn't tend to see that in a lot of modern Horror of Weird Fiction (and next to never in Lovecraftian fiction), which often cavort with anti-heroes and outcasts, loners and four-time losers at love.  Strantzas, on the other hand, seems to almost be a "Big R" Romantic, celebrating the power of real, abiding love, and showing you what can happen because of it, or due to a sudden lack of it.  "An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky" (recently selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 23, edited by the renowned Stephen Jones) and "When Sorrows Come" truly hum on the page, creating a duet of profound heartache that echo long after like a dirge.  The protagonists are gutted by lost love, allowing the noxious blackness to seep into the empty spaces between the cracks.  "Tend Your Own Garden" takes a different angle on relationships, and crafts a bold, frightening metaphor of bitter breakup and betrayal embodied by a once shared house.  These three tales anchor Nightingale Songs, and provide a thematic melody present throughout the collection.

In addition to the Romantic, Strantzas work can also get close to you through nostalgia.  "Out of Touch", which starts out the collection, brings to mind an era familiar to me, when children still explored their suburban neighborhoods and the wilder places just beyond on bikes that could have been chariots. The critically acclaimed "Mr. Kneale," another stand-out, allows Stantzas to comment on the Horror Fiction industry in general - and inspiration in particular - by setting his story in the realm of the horror convention.  It's a truly spooky tale, with plenty of multilevel bite.

In short, Simon Strantzas is a writer in full bloom, and Nightingale Songs shows all of his varied foliage.  These are powerful stories, adroitly told, which serve to stack him up favorably with anyone writing Horror/Weird fiction today.  

Shifting gears just slightly, I'd like to announce that this is the first of what is now called The Cosmicomicon Review & Interview, where I personally read their writing or check out their art and then annoy a writer and/or artist with a series of hackneyed, superficial questions to go along with my review of their work.  Think of it as a poorly moderated Q & A panel at your favorite con, sans cocktails (although you're certainly welcome to enjoy one whilst reading).

I hope you enjoy the interview below, and thank you to Simon for agreeing to spend time with blue card questions better left on the floor under James Lipton's desk.

TC:  Hi, Simon.  Thanks for sitting down with The Cosmicomicon, especially in March, as I know that the debauched revelry and dark ritual of Commonwealth Day can last well into summer…  Speaking of things uniquely Canadian, what is it about Canada that seems to breed comedy, affability, and horror in equal measure?

SS:  Canada is an interesting place. We have all manner of influences coming at us from every direction, whether it's our Commonwealth heritage or the influence of American media upon our daily lives. The country is enormous, and its population so spread out that by its very nature it breeds a certain isolation. All these factors add up to a nation of quirks, something our American cousins don't quite fully grasp. I'd wager your country knows more about England than it does what goes on north of the 49th.

TC:  You’re also an artist/illustrator.  Why did you choose to turn your talents almost exclusively to the written word, rather than the drawn image?

SS:  I spent a good time of youth drawing, painting, etc., but realized early in my 20's that I was not cut out for that world, that my talents were mediocre in comparison to what others were doing. So, I simply stopped. For a few dark years, I did little of anything creative until a crisis of the soul brought me into the fold of writing, and it's something from which I have not looked back.

But, more practically, I'm a firm believer in conveying a clear message, and once an artist starts mixing mediums it tends to water down their impact. For example, Ted, are you a filmmaker or a prose writer? Do you identify yourself as one or the other? Do you worry readers aware of your film work will think "Oh, Grau is slumming it with prose" or think you some sort of "poser"? I worry about these things, and to focus on art now would inevitably undermine my attempts at forging a writing career. Perhaps I'm misguided in this belief, but so far I've seen nothing that convinces me otherwise.

TC:  The term “Weird fiction” gets thrown around a lot these days (with few throwing more than I).  Thomas Ligotti describes his own writing as “uncanny” fiction.  How would you personally describe your writing in terms of genre and/or style?

SS:  I suppose I consider my fiction "strange stories", not accidentally because that's the term Aickman bandied around. In my heart, I simply call it horror, but outside, in the world, the term carries with it so many negative connotations that I hesitate to use it. In the end, despite my stumbles and stutters when asked the question, I do ultimately use the term Horror, because I feel it's up to those of us on the genre's fringes to reclaim it. If we don't associate with the genre, all we do is reinforce the belief the genre is made up of its worst elements. Science Fiction has managed to escape into the mainstream and into "literature", as has the Western. Horror is due its share in the serious limelight. I think it's within our reach if only we hold faith in it. Ramsey Campbell often says that he has yet to explore everything a horror story can tell. I like to believe the genre is as endless as he says. And, really, who would know better?

TC:  Your fiction focuses a lot on the internal, the personal/individual, or the interplay of a relationship in an almost microcosmic sense, which is an angle that is quite different than that of macrocosmic horror and the works of Lovecraft.  Which writers do you view as inspirations, or thematically/stylistically similar to yourself?

SS:  My fiction comes from a large number of approaches, all synthesized into my own. Ligotti, Lovecraft, Lieber, Aickman, Campbell, Tuttle, Tem ... these are genre names that rattle in my head, but even beyond horror's walls voices like Millhauser and Auster and Borges and Jackson ring certain notes. There can be a terseness from Miller, the puzzle-box plotting of Moore, all sorts of different masters fighting for dominance. In terms of the "microcosmic", I'm not sure who my literary forebearers are. For me, as an introspective person, it seems only natural to obsess over the tiny movements of a hand, the shifting viewpoints of someone in doubt. Understanding what's happening, regardless of how fantastic that happening is, is really what interests me most.

TC:  What sort of reaction do you want to elicit from your readers?  Name your ideal reader reaction, then one which would appeal to you the least.

SS:  I want my readers to react however they'd like. Any reaction is pleasing to me, from laughter to tears. I can tell you though that what I care about doing least -- what I spend little to no time attempting -- is frightening my readers. It's sacrilege, in this genre, to say that. So many people want only to evoke that sensation. I care more about eliciting awe in my readers, or if I can't get awe, then at least make them think a bit longer than they might normally. I want them to question their world, their own feelings. I want to evoke an image that even when the story is done stays with them. I want to change my reader in some way. The rest, the entertainment, the show, the rollercoaster -- it holds little importance to me. I care only enough to keep the reader involved in the story. After all, no matter how much a story can deliver on the second or third reading, if it's not interesting on the first read no one is likely to return.

TC:  What was the first bit of fiction you completed, and how did that first finished piece play into your current career?

SS:  There are different answers to this, of course. The first bit of fiction I wrote was no doubt as a child, and remember no one of it. The first published piece appeared in a university alternative newspaper, and is best left unearthed. The first proper story, under my name, to see print happened about a decade ago in All Hallows, and it has subsequently appeared in my collection "Cold to the Touch" to positive reviews. In truth, I don't think that single story did much for my career, other than allow me to achieve a goal I'd set for myself at its outset -- namely, get published in All Hallows. By the time it saw print, though, I'd already sold a few more, but I'll tell you, finally seeing my name in print was something it took a long time to get over. Even now, I'm not quite so jaded that I don't enjoy the sensation of cracking a book open and seeing that.

TC:  I ask this a lot, but I truly have an interest in this -- What is your impression of the small press speculative fiction scene, both from the POV of a writer/editor, and as a reader/fan?

SS:  The small press is a necessary evil for the horror genre. Horror, despite what I might have suggested previously, is not really made for the mass market. By its nature it fits in better on the edges of the world, in the shadows. Good horror is transgressive, it questions everything, it challenges right from wrong, and the grander concepts it explores aren't something most average people want to encounter. Except for a brief bubble in the eighties, horror fiction has never been popular, and will always be something sought out by sympathetic readers. They are enough only to fill a small pond, so I consider us lucky the world of technology has allowed even the smallest of ponds professional level production values. Do I enjoy the ephemeral nature of most markets in horror? Not particularly, but in honesty I spend little time in the small press magazine world anymore anyway. Most of what I write nowadays is solicited, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

TC:  I asked Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon this once, and I think I’ll use it as a Liptonesque tag in my interviews --  What scares you?  (BTW, Gordon said “Everything”)

Nothing interesting scares me. My fears are boring and common.

TC:  To follow up on that, what DOESN’T scare you?

Horror fiction.

TC:  This sounds a bit “job interviewy,” but what do you see yourself writing in 10 years?  30?

SS:  If the dark heavens allow, I'll be writing forever exactly what I'm writing now. Just, I hope, with a bigger audience.

TC:  What do you have on the docket as far as upcoming projects?

SS:  I have more than a few irons in the fire, many of which I can't (or won't) discuss. I will tell you though that I have fiction appearing this year in two anthologies from Stephen Jones. The first, the sequel to the mosaic novel, "Zombie Apocalypse", the second, a reprint in this year's "Best New Horror" volume. As well, I have a piece in the just printed "Aklonomicon", and work in the two tribute volumes from Joe Pulver, "The Grimscribe's Puppets" and "A Season in Carcosa".  And let's not forget the reprint of one of my stories in the upcoming "Night Land" magazine in Japan. Wow, that's a lot, and there is more yet I have to keep under my hat. Let's just say I'm keeping busy.

TC:  Finally:  Bob and Doug McKenzie - a great Canadian impression, or the GREATEST Canadian impression?

SS:  What do you mean by "impression"? That's what we're all like up here. You Hoser.


  1. Great interview, lots to chew on and take in, well done boys! *clap-clap-clap-clap*

  2. Tank ye, Nicklets. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Yeah, I did prattle on a bit, didn't I? I was inspired!