Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TC Review and Interview: John Claude Smith leads us through an AUTUMN IN THE ABYSS, now available from Omnium Gatherum

For the past few years, I and many of my colleagues have written and spoken at length about the Weird Fiction Renaissance currently taking place amid the long and twisting halls of genre fiction.  More writers are doing more work in speculative fiction than any other time in the recent past.  And while the double edged sword of self publishing services, POD, and electronic media platforms have provided easier access to that once elusive - and now often murky - label of "published work," removing necessary gatekeepers and truncated the time it takes to move from amateur to legit, some strong grain is being sifted to the surface amid all of that overeager chaff.  

One of these Renaissance Men is certainly John Claude Smith, who proves his weird fic mettle in his second collection Autumn in the Abyss, published by Omnium Gatherum, a book of five bleak, well crafted tales just as liable to punch you in the gut as twist some dark corner of your mind, tied together with the sinewy connective tissue of recurring characters and familiar thematic overtones.  This is cosmic horror, but this is also body horror and gore, with several of the stories plumbing the cruelest pits and most deviant acts perpetrated by humankind, much of it playing out in front of an audience of curious eyes not native to this planet.  To Smith, we are not the center of the universe, nor are we alone in it, and that is a very unfortunate thing, for a variety of reasons that become viscerally evident as each story unfolds.  Dark forces have found our planet, and have reached out to it - to us - to study, to absorb, to form unholy alliances, embodied by the mysterious Mr. Liu, who shows up in several of the stories like a jaundiced tether, tying the collection together.  Smith is a fetching stylist with an unflinching eye and a thoughtful take on modern horror fiction, showing us the beauty, the barbarity, the abyss that lies inside all there is.

The title tale kicks off the book, and serves as its longest and possibly its strongest piece.  Admittedly, as a hopelessly romantic fan of the Beats, I'm probably biased toward "Autumn in the Abyss," but even without the callbacks to (and cameos by) a variety of Beatnik nouns, this story stands tall as a huge and engrossing work of uncanny fiction.  While researching the public disappearance of "visionary poet Henry Coronado" - think a Ginsberg/Kerouac/Burroughs amalgam meets Thomas Ligotti - an agoraphobic investigative writer uncovers various clues, recollections, and interview fragments that begin to unravel the mystery that abruptly ended the career of a Beatnik star immediately after his first public reading - albeit a reading that ended with the death of nearly everyone in attendance.  Smith shows a familiarity with the subject matter that blends the druggy jazz of the Beats with the dark yearnings of those intellectually and spiritually curious seekers who came well before them.  It is also - at its heart - a rumination on the power of of the spoken word, in which what qualifies as a "poem" and what can be classified as a "spell" or "incantation" or even "summoning" is often nonexistent, and only differentiated by what words are actually spoken, and in what order.  "Autumn in the Abyss" is a fascinating work, worthy of the title (which is fantastic), and a perfect anchor tale to launch the collection.

"Broken Teacup" is a leering stare into the nauseating depths of human depravity, and the male lust for sex and death, often not in that order nor separated from one another.  Smith's background in music journalism makes itself felt here through a confident handling of the sonic underworld where it crosses over with snuff erotica. This was a hard story to read, mostly because I know that such people are living and doing their business right this very second all around me.  "Broken Teacup" marks Mr. Liu's first arrival in the book, but certainly not the last, and with each arrival, we see further into the mythos of Smith's dark universe, and the ties that bind our reality to what swirls just outside it.

The "wealthy Chinese gentleman" returns for a consecutive appearance in "La mia immortalita," John Claude Smith's requisite tale of a tortured (torturing?) artist, as it seems every writer of horror/supernatural fiction has one inside their pen, struggling to get out much like the waiting shape inside the slab of uncut marble.  What will one sacrifice to achieve immortality through their art? I guess it depends on who is asking, and what they can offer.

Similar in graphic rendering to "Broken Teacup," the story "Becoming Human" takes on the tropes of the charismatic serial killer, a frustrated detective, and the copycat phenomenon that sometimes follows in the wake of a high profile murder spree of spectacular savagery.  But, instead of treading the old familiar ground played out so often in film, television, and dog-eared paperback, Smith leads us in a new direction, elevating the story into the realms of not quite cosmic horror, but certainly cosmicism, as the horror elements are undeniably and concretely of this earth, buoyed by the atmospherics of the outer dark. "Becoming Human" is certainly my second favorite story in the collection (just behind "Autumn in the Abyss"), as it is both brutal and poetic, including some beautiful, thoughtful prose on prison, humanity, and on the tragic squandering of love.  It could be just a coincidence that both this story and "Autumn..." are also the book's longest works. Regardless, I'd love to see Smith work more in the longer form, be it novella or novel, allowing his graceful style room to roam and dance with his feet while unlocking new monstrosities further up the body.

"Where the Light Won't Find You" is - relatively speaking - probably the weakest piece of the bunch, closing out the collection on not quite as strong a note as the start.  But, it does give us another piece of the Mr. Liu puzzle, who returns for his third and final bow.  The story takes place almost entirely inside an unremarkable movie theater, and is plotted like a modern pulp rendering of fantastical fiction from an age gone by.  And while I certainly enjoyed it (I'm a sucker for the pulps), I didn't think it quite lived up to the lofty bar set by the other stories of Autumn in the Abyss. No matter, though, as it is a minor quibble and probably a bit of nitpicking, as the collection is so strong overall.

Admittedly, I have not read Smith's debut collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me, but I have read and published his fiction in the past ("Beautiful," which appeared in the acclaimed Strange Aeons Issue #13), and based on everything I have seen so far from John Claude Smith, he is major talent with a firm place at the table of contemporary weird fiction writers currently carrying the smoky torch of supernatural literature. The Renaissance continues...

Hi, John.  Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon.

My pleasure, Ted.  I look forward to digging into the questions.

I like to start out each interview with a bit of background on the interviewee.  Your bio lists work as not just a prose author, but also a writer of poetry, song, and journalism.  What first got you interesting in writing, and how has your journey with the written word played out?

My journey has been a long, erratic mess, but that’s life, so I keep pushing forward.  I remember being seven years-old and reading a story by H.P. Lovecraft in an anthology and amazed how, with words, he had created an ambiance that was real, tangible, and I wanted to do this as well.  But I did not pursue writing at that time because art was my main interest back then as I had a talent for drawing, something I hope to explore again in the future.  Fast forward a few years, my teenage self starts in with rock ‘n’ roll lyrics that evolve into poetry.  Most of these are bad, but there are flashes of something taking shape, the seeds of obsessions and even stylistic nuances that would imbue much of my later work.  Flash forward again, late twenties and I realize I need to get serious about this writing gig, because I keep going back to it as life tumbles onward.  Getting serious means writing every day and sending out submissions.  Acceptances come in small presses for a few stories written under a pseudonym, Kiel Alexander, a name chosen because when you’re named John Smith, something more distinct is necessary; I added John to the beginning of the pseudonym in the early 2000s before switching over to my real name (I think…), John Claude Smith.  Stepping back in the timeline, while working in a record store I start writing in-store reviews, branching out to magazines such as Outburn, Side-Line, Industrial Nation, Alternative Press, and more.  Review writing takes over my life.  A few years caught in this cycle pushes fiction to the background.  Life shakes, rattles and rolls on and splinters to a point where, after the dust settles, I tell myself to quit messing around with reviews and get back to fiction.  More sales, more publications, a relationship break-up that inspires my first as yet unpublished novel, but at least it let me know I could do it.  A second novel follows, more stories, refinement, growth…and my first collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me, is published.  Then a second collection, Autumn in the Abyss, is published early 2014.  Constantly taking it all in and stretching as a writer.
A stand-alone novelette published in limited quantities, Dandelions, and here I am, a couple weeks away from the completion of another novel—number three--and where am I as a writer?  Still learning, still discovering, finally understanding the lie many of us tell ourselves, that we need to write, though so many allow life to take the reins while we get the writing in when we can.  Understanding it because, though I have claimed this before, only now do I really get it.  I have to write.  Every day I need words.  I am at a place where I sense what’s happening has depth, resonance, something more…and that something more is what I want to investigate.  So, how has my journey with the written word played out?  Maddeningly inconsistent in its consistency.  Not as I would have planned, but with what’s in motion right now, I know everything that has come before has set me up for the stories and novel that demand my attention, without wavering.  The inconsistencies banished forever.  I might finally be… a writer.

There is a distinct strain of Cosmic Horror in your work.  Was the exploration of alien terrors a conscious choice?  What other practitioners of Cosmic Horror do you read, and/or have influence you as a writer?

I've always had an interest in Cosmic Horror, though it was not the focus of my early stories.  I just wanted to write gruesome, atmospheric, or just down and dirty Horror.  I believe there was a shift once I got into music journalism.  What?  That’s right.  A lot of what I reviewed was instrumental, experimental soundscapes.  Everything from dark ambient to power electronics.  I used these sounds to create worlds and creatures within the reviews.  Much of this type of music, particularly the dark ambient, tends to utilize cosmic references and suggestions of deep space origins.  Bands like Inade and Endvra sonically skirt along the edge of oblivion, though they often bring those elements into the dark pockets of our world as well.  Either way, this type of music was paramount in my writer’s mindset, steering me away from the more familiar horrors and along dark roads less traveled.
The Old Master CAS
As for writers, the usual form the foundation, from Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft, to more current practitioners such as Laird Barron.  There are more obscure writers I've been lucky to learn about via friends in the Weird Fiction community online that I am checking out as I am always looking for something else to shake up the imagination in unique ways.

Judging by social media, and backed up by “La mia immortalità," you seem to be a lover of the visual arts as well as the written ones, taking great pleasure in the beauty of the image.  How important is this to your daily life, and how does it inspire and possibly inform your writing?

Art is necessary in my life.  Art in all forms fuels me constantly.  Music, obviously, as well as all sorts of visual forms of art, from paintings to digital to sculpture to…wherever art is headed.  I’m interested and want to see more, know more.  Paintings and digital work constantly inspire ideas and stories or at least scenes to be incorporated in a tale.  As with the music reviews, I let the art take my imagination wherever it wants to go.  You mention “La mia immortalità,” the inspiration for the story was the famous (and my favorite) sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Viewing his sculptures at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, Italy, of Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and so much more throughout Rome, I was awestruck.  Before seeing these in person, sculpture was a backburner interest.  Now, well, how can a creative individual not be inspired?

You have also spent many years serving as a reviewer of dark and heavy music. Did this background play into the writing of "Broken Teacup"?

Absolutely.  I've reviewed many a CD that could very well be what is described in that story, as created by the fictional band, Texas Chainsaw Erection.  The actual inspiration for the sample in the popular underground hit within the story (“Curly Straw”) parallels a sample I heard early in the track, “Whoredom,” by Taint.  Now, most of what I listened to in the noise field was not of this perverse foundation, and a lot of that is fairly unlistenable, but much of it works for me.  The sheer ferocity of noise as well as the willingness to go to places most would avoid, what with those samples meant to make the listener squirm with discomfort—not unlike what I like to do with some of my fiction.  Music in all forms shapes a lot of my tales.

Another spark of inspiration for this tale was a short story by John Everson—I believe it was “Let Go”—that opens with a truly despicable character, yet by the end the reader almost feels sympathy for him.  I wanted that here, but probably went so deep into the darkness sympathy was well out of reach…

What else inspires you?  What are your Muses?

The world around me.  Everything.  There are no limitations to what can inspire if one lives one’s life with eyes wide open.  Taking in a movie about Pasolini in Rome a few weeks ago triggered a story dealing with the nature of the artist and how far is too far.  How far is too much, perhaps, in trying to make a point.  A request for an anthology with the editor making a couple of suggestions, then my mentioning it to my girlfriend, Alessandra, she tosses in her two cents, and another tale is in motion.  An article online about [place obscure subject matter here].  Watching the dynamics of people at a recent concert. Eyes wide open. Always.  

Other writers, too.  This is rather obvious, but great writing is high on my list of inspiration.  Recently, Scott Nicolay’s debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata, melted my brain and restructured it with different patterns and what-not.  (The story that followed this process—oh, my!)  The Children of Old Leech, the Laird Barron tribute, just amazing.  Made me want to write a tale for the next installment.  Re-reading Lucius Shepard, Samuel Delany, while looking for new writers who know what they are doing, like Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, whose debut collection, Weird Tales of a Bangalorean, I’m digging the tones, the vibes, just wonderful.  It’s a constant search for writing done right, for writing that moves me.

The enigmatic - and infinitely "well-connected" - Mr. Liu makes an appearance in several of your stories.  Without giving anything away, what can you tell us about Liu?  How was he created, and what is his purpose in your work going forward (if, indeed, he will live on past Autumn in the Abyss)?

Mr. Liu was, as I like to think of a few characters that have come out of the blue or perhaps out of the pitch black, a gift.  I remember writing “Broken Teacup” and thinking, okay, what happens now?  Show me.  And there he was this ancient Chinese fella with the hot-wired connections.  Balance is essential for me in a lot of ways, Mr. Liu just became my emissary for a broader scope of possibilities dealing with the subject.  Pieces of his history have trickled through the other stories, primarily “La mia immortalità,” toward the end, but it’s still coming to me.  There will be at least a few more stories for him, including one with a female protagonist that goes to unexpected places, as well as an origin story that could end up in novelette or even novella territory.  There’s a strong idea that he’s not even Chinese, but circumstances…altered him.  Working on this story early in the new year, I expect.  Though making plans, c’mon, just this last week, with a novel to revise and get to the publisher and a getting deep into a couple other stories, I had a new story demand my time, wrapping up in less than a week.

Speaking of cameos, and as a huge fan of the Beats, I applaud your inclusion of Jack Kerouac in the title novella, as well as the setting within the Beatnik literary world and the shout outs to many of the greats.  Is this a love letter?

A love letter…and a reaction to a lot going on around me at its inception.  I was in Rome, Italy, a couple years ago, visiting my girlfriend, Alessandra.  She was immersed in research for a bio on a famous American poet at the time—still working on it as I type this, with a self-imposed deadline of getting it done next year.  She started telling me all she was finding, even some elements that might sway me, if I was writing it, to step away if they were true.  They don’t seem to be, but that opened my mind to the tale of an agoraphobic’s research into mad poet, Henry Coronado, and his loaded poem, Autumn in the Abyss.  (Though, of course, I did not know he was an agoraphobic until I started writing the tale.  All the writers reading this know how that works…)  In discussions with Alessandra, she mentioned Beat poet, Lew Welch, who left a suicide note in his truck at a campsite, never to be seen again.  That opened up the beginning of the story for me, gave me a way into it…and it just unraveled from there.  Add to this my love of words, not just as you read them, but in this case, as if they were sentient, well…  Over two white-hot weeks, that tale poured out of me.  Final revisions with my publisher shaped it into the weird tale it is.

As for adding real people in my fiction, it’s something I picked up from J.G. Ballard, perhaps the most influential writer for my work, though Clive Barker has his stamp on some of the more obvious elements, I’m sure.  (Many pieces go into the never completed puzzle of whatever the heck I am doing.)  Ballard used Elizabeth Taylor as the obsession of Vaughan in Crash, my favorite novel.  Though others have used known, real people, in their fiction, Crash was the novel that made me think…why not?  So, the Beats in Autumn in the Abyss…and William S. Burroughs is a driving force and makes an appearance in my novel WIP, “Riding the Centipede.”

In many of your pieces, the human characters in the story easily outstrip the "monsters" in violence, cruelty, and depravity.  Was this intentional, or some unconscious projection of your feelings on humanity?

It stems from my fascination with the darker aspects of what it means to be human.  Whether intentional or unconscious projection of my spin on humanity, it varies with each story.  But I know it’s always there, this curiosity about what drives those who allow or choose or are slaves to perversions of psychology, philosophy, sexuality, and addiction, to run their lives.  I like getting my hands and mind dirty as it’s a more honest approach to characters, their development, motivations, and the wily inner thread of monologue that speaks to them…and each of us, always.  Stuff that nobody admits having thought, but it’s there, we all do it.  What if your partner or friends knew what really was going on in your head?  Oh, my…  Point being, if I’m going to go to the darkest places within a character, I won’t flinch.  But I also want, at all times, to remain in touch with the human side.  For example, with “Becoming Human,” I know some people even into the hardcore side of horror squirmed when reading about the serial killer/rapist/psychological cipher, Krell.  Yet the key to that story, in showing such brutality, is as much about Detective Vera and his finally getting back to what matters to him, his wife and their love.  In finally becoming human again.

A love of the work of Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., and other writers who delve into their addictions fuels much of my work.  As well as friends I know who have gone to very dark places with their own addictions and obsessions.  As well as me and my outsider mindset, something I was born with—there is evidence of this from a very young age—though being raised in your average middle American family, I also learned how to, yes, balance my interests, the fringe with the more commercial, I suppose.  I am here, jotting notes, learning always.  Funny, in writing this, it veers into one of my favorite topics: perspective.  How we each view the world and live our lives.  After all, one person’s logic is another person’s lunch.  Or…well, yes, something like that.  Bon appetit!

How did you get hooked up with Kate Jonez and Omnium Gatherum?  With a roster that includes some extremely well-regarded authors, it seems to be a hot indie press.

I’d enjoyed what I had read from Omnium Gatherum, following their progression as they grew into something of a force.  We had some contact and she mentioned wanting to work with me.  Perfect…so I sent her a novel that she passed on, saying it was a bit too straightforward and Lovecraftian for her.  I was bummed, then studied some OG titles and realized Autumn… would possibly work for her because it’s a tale that fits more what she likes, something that bounces around in time or at least has a variety of things going on.  I sent it her way and she was happy to accept it.  But in order to make the book long enough to get a title on the spine, we needed to add some words.  I sent her the three Mr. Liu stories and she loved them.  I thought we were set.  But a status on FB asked some questions—I forget what exactly—and in the process, I sent her another story, just so she could get my spin on whatever that status had questioned, not even thinking about adding the story—“Becoming Human”—to the book.  But when she sent the edits, she’d added it to the TOC, stating it was her favorite story of the batch.  The editing process for the book was a fabulous experience, spending all day one Saturday reading the tales back and forth to each other, shaping everything properly.

I hope to have more work published by OG, especially the novel that’s this close to completion, because part of the inspiration for it was comments she made about the rejected novel.  You want wild and crazy, eh? Okay…

Tell us a bit about your debut fiction collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me.

In a sideways manner, I found out one of my FB friends was an agent.  She wasn't a full-time agent anymore, but I had sent her the passed over novel noted above, well before Kate read it, and she loved it and wanted to represent it.  She sent it around, got it to some of the Big Six, it got stellar comments but nobody bit because they didn't know what to do with it.  While she was doing this, at some point she mentioned being one of the main people behind the publisher, Ampichellis, and thought getting a collection out would be a good idea. I jumped at this, because I enjoyed her feedback and thought it would be good to work with her; and I really did enjoy the whole process.  We put together the best stories, a variety of moods, and she worked diligently on cover art that we both liked.  This was a long process, tossing out ideas, finally settling on the artwork, whipping it together, and getting it released 11-11-11.  I consider it a good introduction to my writing as some of my best work is included (“I Wish I Was a Pretty Little Girl”—title stolen and manipulated from a Brighter Death Now song—“Plastic,” “Strange Trees,” the title story, perhaps another tale or three).  I’m proud of it, even as I know it’s of a time and I would hope I have advanced as a writer.  I can read the stories and enjoy them, but also want to tweak them a bit here and there, but have moved on since then, so they stand as is and quite well at that.

Is it "John" or "Jean"?  If the latter, how many people pronounce your name as "Gene" on a weekly basis?

John.  I get the occasional Jean, not often, but enough to just shake my head and smile.

What's next for you?  What projects do you have in the pipeline?  Where can we find you online, and your published work?

I’m completing a novel, a kind of quest/manhunt through the dark frontier of drug addiction and altered realities, the aforementioned, “Riding the Centipede.”  Another collection is in the works, too.  The main deal is just to keep writing!

A handful of titles are upcoming in anthologies including “The First and Last Performance of Varack” in the Monk Punk & The Shadow of the Unknown omnibus; I was told they wanted surreal Lovecraftian tales, so this was the result.  Actually, been getting a lot of requests for Lovecraft-related tales, so there’s “I Am…” in A Mythos Grimmly—a mash-up of fairy tales and Lovecraft--and two other tales in this vein, one getting sent out later today as I type this.  There’s a few other tales including one for the second volume of Axes of Evil and one for Soul Survivors II, as well as a second novelette to be released early 2015 by Dunhams Manor Press, called “Vox Terrae.”

You can find me at the usual hangouts—Facebook, Twitter, even Google+ though I don’t remember the last time I was there, and Goodreads—all listed under my full name for easy search.  There’s also a blog, The Wilderness Within: http://thewildernesswithinbyjohnclaudesmith.blogspot.it/.

Thanks again, John, for the interview, and best of luck with all of your future endeavors.

You’re welcome and thank you so much, Ted.  I had a thoroughly enjoyable time going through these questions.  We’ll have to do it again sometime.  :)

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