|Cover artwork by Santiago Caruso|
Every insular creative scene has its personalities, its movers, its stars. It's like the cover of Tiger Beat magazine. Or a boy band... covered by Tiger Beat magazine. These personalities have labels: The Shy One. The Flirt. The Bad Boy. The Heartthrob.
As mainstream publishing occasionally—and grudgingly—accepts while also further insulates indie press Weird fiction (not an easy bit of cultural gymnastics), a brighter light is being shed on the personalities in this scene, as well. The boy (and girl) band members. While others can hash out who is who and whom is whom, I have my own labels. And in this issue of Tiger Beat, John Langan is The Professor. Or, The General. But mostly The Professor.
You see, Langan actually is a professor in his workaday life, and seems to be naturally suited to the proud vocation, as he can't help but teach us—his students—with each and every one of his layered, finely crafted, incredibly interesting stories of horror and the strange, which are on full display in his latest collection of short fiction The Wide, Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies (Hippocampus Press, 2013), a title I muchly dig, splayed over a cover featuring art by the renowned Santiago Caruso.
When I write "teach" I don't mean "preach," as his work is not preachy in the slightest. Didactic, yes, but I enjoy didacticism, as I'm a huge fan of stylistic writing, unique voice, and guiding subtext. In the case of The Professor, the teaching comes from his deconstruction of the supernatural tale, tearing it down, showing us the parts, and then building it back up in front of our wide, wondrous eyes. There is a deftness in the way he plays with tropes, a celebration, and even at times a wink and a nudge to the reader while he turns them inside out, shining light on a new angle of something you thought you already knew. This is an expert at work within genres, archetypes, and iconic monsters that he clearly loves, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious, which translates to the reader as a good professor does with an interesting, or even a complex, lecture. One gets the sense of learning while being entertained, or moved, or horrified. That is not an easy thing to do. Hence, my clumsy metaphor above. Hence, Langan as The Professor.
The analogy is set from the first pages of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies, as "Kids" takes place in a classroom, a setting to which we are returned two stories later, in "Technicolor." The former is a piece of flash fiction written from a viewpoint you'd imagine is quite common amongst teachers forced to deal with the smallish nightmares birthed into the world and hustled off into the local schools, while the former is a mesmerizing rumination on Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," in which the reader gets a glimpse of what The Professor might sound like when standing in front of his assembled students. An arcane history of Poe's famed short story and the details surrounding its creation are reeled off by an instructor in loving homage and as a bit of slight of hand, while something else is happening just outside the schoolhouse. This is a dazzling info-load couched inside historical and dark literary fiction, wrapped up by a Weird mystery tale. EAP would be incredibly proud.
In between these two pieces is the meaty, strong-limbed "How The Day Runs Down," which is a zombie tale unlike any I've previously read. Not that I've read a lot of zombie fiction, mind, but I love the theatrical, shattered fourth wall way that Langan structures this tale, and inside of this armature of a narrated stage play, his overall rendering of a zombie apocalypse touches on the often random nature of total societal collapse and those who will survive. Terrifying, heartbreaking, and boldly experimental, this is—as are other stories in this collection—a piece of meta horror fiction that evidences a writer who can look at stories in three, and sometimes four, dimensions when deciding how to tell them.
The titular tale arrives next, shifting gears into an action-packed Gulf War story detailing the decimation of an American platoon by something that swoops down from the sky, told in both the present and through flashback, as the survivors prepare to deal out some payback against a cosmic bloodsucker that apparently hasn't read any of the old, tired vampire yarns about what it can and cannot do, and when. This is grim, grisly, totally fun stuff, reminiscent of the Pulps, and reflects Langan's love of comic books and Robert E. Howard.
"City of the Dog"—in addition to being a story about canine monsters prowling the more ancient parts of 1990's Albany—struck me as a powerful tale about cowardice, and other emotional failings of selfish people trying to hold onto relationships, and ultimately save themselves, at a very selfish age. "The Revel" deals with similar beasts, but in a much different way, walking the reader through the commonplace steps of your classic werewolf film while not telling that same reader that the camera was never rolling.
At this point in the collection, we've seen the author give the Langan Treatment to zombies, werewolves, and vampires, while also discussing, in detail, the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Not many writers can jump strata with such a deft, confident touch, or with such a sense of enjoyment.
Veering left is "The Shallows," which shows us backyard Lovecraftian horror drenched in the bizarre. Dread and loneliness and grief and madness now live in a world that has changed forever, while something incredibly large is moving out in the water... The story had what can only be described as a psychedelic effect on me while reading it, as I imagined the scene dotted with colorful strobes and that weird soundtrack music of early 70's experimental film while the narrator puttered around his property and garden, accompanied by his trusty crab.
"June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris." is a quick, jarring tale of a serial killer answering to a higher calling, intent on making a spitfire named "Laird" his next victim, written for an online ribbing/tribute page to fellow horror author Laird Barron. The creep-out factor of the antagonist balances well with the reader cheering on the protagonist, who obviously knows what to do when he has a knife in his hands. Blades ain't just for slicing sled rope, bub.
Following the fiction, I loved the story notes section, as my inner fanboy geeks out on background and inspiration info related to stories I enjoy. The early edition ARC I received unfortunately didn't include the afterword by Laird Barron, as I'm always interested in Barron's take on writing in general, and specific writers in particular. His close friendship with Langan would have made for epic reading.
Last year I read Langan's previous collection, the outstanding Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and upon finishing The Wide Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies, I can see the growth of a writer in terms of narrative scope and guiding structure, in the confidence and audacity. One can sense newfound freedom in these nine tales. This is a powerhouse collection, large and deep, both familiar and innovative, at times heartrendingly tragic and other times giddy fun. John Langan is a writer working at the leading edge of horror fiction, tipping his hat in respect to the landmarks behind him while helping map the new terrain ahead. The genre is in good hands while The Professor is drawing up tomorrow's lesson plan.
Storytelling has always been present in my life, in one form or another. I can remember writing my version of King Kong vs. Godzilla when I was in first grade; admittedly, so I could draw the accompanying picture of the two monsters squaring off. When I got in trouble for something in the third grade (I can’t remember what), and my father told me he wanted me to write him a story as part of my punishment, I wrote my own version of the latest issue of Marvel’s Supervillain Team-Up, in which Dr. Doom fought the Red Skull on the moon. (As you might imagine, this was not what my father intended, but to his credit, he accepted it.) And when I was in the sixth grade, I wrote and read to my English class a Halloween story about a kid’s encounter with what was essentially one of Tolkien’s Nazgûl. I think that may have been my first inkling that I had some ability as a writer. I can remember the feel of the other students’ attention, the quiet that descended on the classroom as they listened to the story. My freshman year of high school, I would write a horror story that won first place in the school’s Christmas writing contest, and was published in the school newspaper, and I suppose I could point to that as the moment of clarity as regards to my writing future. But reading a story about a confrontation with a monster—a fundamentally literary monster—to my classmates may have been my first hint of the direction I’d eventually go.
Now that we've squared that away, what drew you to the darker side of the literary ledger?
That’s the question, isn't it? My childhood was punctuated by moments of trauma, from getting a sliver of metal in my right eye when I was two and a half (which required surgery) to my father suffering a pair of heart attacks pretty much consecutively when I was thirteen. That awareness of the contingency of experience, of the way in which the bottom can drop out from under you without warning, combined with a deeply Catholic upbringing, in which the supernatural, both good and bad, was an active part of existence. If you look closely enough at any writer’s life, I suppose their choice of material will seem overdetermined. Certainly, I’m aware of that in my case.
In a similar vein, who (or what) do you consider an influential force on your writing? What writers do you most (professionally) admire, and read the most?
I can’t overestimate the importance comic books had for me as a developing reader and writer, especially the Marvel titles of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Chris Claremont, all played an important role in the formation of my writing, as did Robert E. Howard, to whose fiction I was led by Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian adaptation, and Lloyd Alexander and J.R.R. Tolkien. The writer who first galvanized me, however, who made me feel as if I’d been touched by the Hand of God and set on a mission to do this same thing, was Stephen King, whose Christine I read in paperback the fall of my freshman year of high school, and from which I never looked back. In the three-plus decades since then, I've encountered a few writers who have had a similar impact: Peter Straub, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Henry James, more recently Dickens and Robert Browning. These are the names that come to mind when I think about the writers I’d like to re-read once again. Heaven knows, a number of my contemporaries have evoked a similar response, too, from Laird Barron to Paul Tremblay to Glen Hirshberg to Michael Cisco.
What is your normal writing schedule?
I try to write every day, and to produce at least a page during those one or two hours. I used to get up early in the morning to do this; now, I stay up late into the night.
With echoes of the classroom throughout The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, how has your work as a teacher effected your writing and the stories you choose to write?
“Teaching,” was the answer I gave to my parents when they asked me how I intended to support myself as an adult (since “writing” was never taken seriously as an option). Initially, I planned to teach high school English, but the English professors I had when I started my undergraduate education at SUNY New Paltz convinced me that I should pursue a degree in English, as opposed to education. To be fair, I didn't take much convincing. From the start, I was infatuated with college, and the prospect of remaining in that environment, to pursue literary study and to teach at that level, appealed to me more than I could say. When I began studying for my Master’s degree, also in English, also at New Paltz, I was accepted into the English Department’s teaching assistant program. I was assigned a section of Freshman Composition 1, which I took through fifteen weeks of writing the college-level essay. At the same time, I took a class in and attended weekly meetings dedicated to teaching at the college level. Still, talk about on the job training… Since then, I've taught pretty much every year, with the exception being two semesters I took off when I started taking classes at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I did work towards a Ph.D. I've moved from teaching freshman writing to teaching introductory literature classes, then to teaching more advanced literature classes, and then to teaching creative writing classes.
All of which is to say that teaching has been a crucial, even fundamental, part of my adult life. It’s allowed me to return to certain texts and writers over and over again, and to discuss how a novel such as Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier works with a room full of bright, motivated people. It’s helped me to remain aware of the possibilities of style and form available within fiction. The classroom and larger college campus have also served as settings for a number of my stories and my novel, House of Windows. There’s a great diversity of students and faculty at a public university like SUNY New Paltz, a great number of stories swirling around. There are the same conflicts of the human heart that you encounter in any community, any workplace. From the standpoint of setting and character, it’s fertile ground, one that permits me to write about pretty much any type of character or situation I choose.
What is your favorite story in this collection? What is the most personal to you?
It’s funny: I've never thought of the stories in this book in this way. There are things in each of them that I’m pleased with. I do have a soft spot for “The Revel,” because its earliest version marked my return to writing horror fiction after a long time away. I decided to pull out all the stops in writing it, to go for broke, to bring together everything I knew about writing fiction with everything I knew about horror narratives. I read it to my wife, then my girlfriend, when I visited her at Penn State, where she was completing her dissertation. It was the middle of a hot summer, and her apartment had no air conditioning and no TV. She would take breaks in her work, and I would read the next installment to her. I suppose it was part of our courtship. In any event, reflecting on that story returns me to the humid air, the voices of the golfers playing the golf course across the street, the clack and snap of the keyboard.
At 68 pages, the harrowing investigative piece, “Mother of Stone,” could have easily hopped and skipped its way to becoming a novel, and - with the general industry perception that "the novel is king" - I can see a temptation to pad it up a bit to release it as such. What led you to include it in a collection of short form fiction?
The simple answer is, I needed a new story for my collection, and I thought I’d finish this one, which had begun as my intended contribution to Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas’s Haunted Legends anthology. I knew it was going to be long, but it never occurred to me that it might be a novel—possibly because I was already thinking of it as a story. I have written things that have turned out longer than I expected—to be honest, this is true of pretty much every story I've finished. Even the short short pieces turn out longer than I’d planned. And this is how I came to write my first novel, House of Windows, and my (as yet unpublished) second, The Fisherman. Both started as stories that continued to grow. So upon reflection, I suppose “Mother of Stone” could have grown to novel length, but it would have had to do so organically, which, as things turned out, it didn't.
You wink at the true location of several of your tales set in the fictional town of Huguenot. Does the historic - and in many ways, unprecedented - nature of the Huguenot settlement in New Paltz inform any of your work?
Initially, I wrote about New Paltz and its surroundings because I was following the lead of writers like Stephen King and especially Faulkner. I figured if William Faulkner could find sufficient material for a library shelf’s worth of novels and stories in what he called his postage stamp of soil, then so could I. When I began to read H.P. Lovecraft’s work in a more serious way, I recognized that he was employing setting in a similar fashion to Faulkner. For both writers, the evocation of their specific places helps to ground their narratives in a realistic context. This helps (I think) the events of each writer’s stories to seem more realistic, themselves, as if they've borrowed some of the belief their settings have evoked in the reader. At the very least, the settings give Faulkner and Lovecraft’s narratives additional resonance. For both writers, setting has a temporal dimension, too, and that sense of history really resonated with me. (My single favorite example of this kind of writing may be William Kennedy’s great novel, Ironweed.) It may be due to growing up in what, for the United States, is one of the older parts of the country. It may also be due to having parents who were from Scotland, and who took the family to visit our relatives there, several times, when I was a kid, and exposed me to a much older culture. And it may have something to do with having been raised Catholic, in a religious tradition with a long and storied history. Probably, it’s for all of these reasons, and more, besides. But even when I think back to my youthful readings of the Conan stories, I remember being fascinated by the conceit that these stories were set in an incredibly ancient version of our world (ditto Tolkien). So while I haven’t (yet) done much with the Huguenots per sé, the history of the region continues to be very important to me.
Keeping with geography, New England and areas north and east of New York City seem to have spawned a library full of supernatural fiction over the years, and most of your stories vibrate with the local topography. What is it about this aesthetically beautiful area that inspires such dark and haunted interpretations? The people? The land? The time period of European colonization?
You might answer, “All of the above.” At the risk of sliding too much into my professor voice: The northeast coast of the United States is among the first parts of the country to be densely settled by European colonists, which means it’s also among the first literary centers of the emerging country. It’s settled in part by people who have an especially grim and frightening view of the world, and who leave that viewpoint as a legacy to subsequent generations. It’s home to many of the writers who comprise the first great movement in American letters, the American Renaissance (which is the American version of the Romantic movement whose English exemplars included Coleridge and Keats). One of the greatest writers of that movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne, writes dozens of brilliant stories and a couple of novels that make use of the New England setting and bring it together with elements of the supernatural. Through an accident of geography, H.P. Lovecraft is born in roughly the same area about two generations after Hawthorne’s death. Of course, Lovecraft was born into a culture whose literature now included Hawthorne. In turn, when Stephen King was born in approximately the same region, he was born into a culture that now included Hawthorne and Lovecraft. And so on. I was born into a culture that included Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and King. There’s a kind of process of literary accretion at work, I suppose. Nor is this unique to the northeastern U.S., anymore: both the American south and California strike me as places that have developed their own considerable traditions of weird fiction.
Five years passed between the publication of your first collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. In an impatient age where some writers put out several books a year and readers often demand new material tomorrow, this can be considered a protracted period of time. Was this break between collections deliberate, and/or do you consider yourself a deliberate writer?
It’s a little of column A, a little of column B. I do like to take my time with my writing. When I decided to write seriously, in my mid-twenties, I set myself the goal of completing one page a day. Once I started publishing, I set myself the goal of completing one story per year, which I would have accepted for publication by the time last year’s story appeared. Both of these goals were intended to keep me writing by making the process of writing manageable. They also allowed me time to linger and labor over my fiction, which I did. After I completed my third published story, “Tutorial,” I began work on a story that would become my first novel, and the writing and re-writing of that narrative occupied me for the next several years, which removed from what little audience I’d attracted. I assumed House of Windows would be my first book because, as you pointed out above, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on the novel as the pre-eminent length for fiction. It took longer to find a publisher for the book than I’d anticipated, however, and in the meantime, Prime Books had a slot open in their publication schedule for a new collection of fiction, and both Nick Mamatas and Paul Tremblay gave them my name as a possibility. The result of all this was that, just as I was starting to publish short fiction, again, I had two books appear within less than a year of one another, my collection and then my novel. After this, my story writing really started to pick up, as more and more invitations from more and more editors to be part of more and more anthologies found their way to my e-mail’s inbox. Somewhat quickly, I had enough stories for a second collection, which my agent sold in 2011 but which various delays on my part kept from appearing until 2013. As this was going on, I finally finished my second novel, which I’d put off completing in order to write stories. The novel proved to be as hard to sell to the big houses as its predecessor—once again, my agent received replies complimenting the literariness of the book, and explaining that this was why it wasn't going to be published. Which is not to say we've given up on it, only that it will be a bit longer still before it appears. And while I've been focused on selling my next novel, I've continued to write shorter fiction, with the result that I now have enough stories published and forthcoming for another two and a half collections. I’m hopeful the next collection will appear sometime in 2016, and then we’ll see about the others after that.
I guess the point of all this is, I've taken a somewhat scattershot approach to book publication. I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent in that regard, especially when it comes to novels. On the other hand, years after each of my books appeared, they continue to receive notice. There’s a tendency among a lot of writers, especially newer writers, to fret over the fate of their book if it doesn't make a big splash when it’s published, or if it doesn't make year’s best lists, or if it isn't nominated for the relevant awards. I know because I've worried over all these things. Yet my limited experience thus far assures me that, if you do good work, people will find their way to it. Maybe not as quickly as you’d like, but it will happen. So I try to remember that, and keep on writing.
Was the artwork from the always excellent Santiago Caruso commissioned for Carnivorous by Hippocampus, or was it selected by you?
Santiago’s cover was commissioned by me for the book with Hippocampus’s blessing. I owe my discovery of Santiago’s work to the folks at Night Shade Books, who tapped him to do the cover for House of Windows. This led me to his website, which featured a generous sampling of his stunning work. I loved the way his art reached back to someone like Goya, while also invoking the surrealists. I wanted very much to work with him again, so when Derrick Hussey asked me if I had any thoughts on cover artists for The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, I immediately thought of Santiago. To be honest, I think he knocked it out of the park with that cover.
How did you rope Laird Barron into writing the afterword for your collection?
I've been friends with Laird longer than pretty much any other writer I know. I’m pretty sure it was Gordon Van Gelder, who had published my first story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, who told me to check out Laird’s first story in the magazine, which appeared the month after mine. Laird and I started corresponding, based on our mutual appreciation of and esteem for one another’s work, and have grown to be good friends since. Laird is the real deal. He’s immensely talented, and restless to take that talent in ever-new directions. He’s one of the hardest working artists I know, and that’s saying something. Predicting the literary future is a mug’s game, but I’ll play it anyway and say that I’m pretty sure Laird’s fiction is going to stand the test of time as well as that of anyone else writing now. So, naturally, I decided to piggyback on his success by asking him to write the afterword to my second collection. Some folks have no use for such things, but I've always loved them, for the glimpse they offer into the writers’ lives, for the insights they can bring to a reader’s understanding. I’ll admit, Laird took the piece in a direction I was not anticipating, much to my delight. But his friendship means the world to me, and I’m happy he was able to be part of the book.
What is your involvement with the Shirley Jackson Awards, and explain to those who might not know how the awards were launched, and why?
With Brett Cox, JoAnn Cox, Sarah Langan, and Paul Tremblay, I’m one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards. To describe the awards, I could do worse than quote the official webpage:
“In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, and with permission of the author’s estate, the Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.
“The Shirley Jackson Awards are voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics, with input from a Board of Advisors. The awards are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in the following categories: Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.”
Basically, the awards were founded because there’s a tremendous amount of great dark fiction being published at all lengths, and it seemed appropriate to us to have another means of recognizing it. The nominations lists are up at the award website, and you could do worse than read through their contents.
As part of our fundraising efforts for the award, we've also partnered with the LitReactor website the last few years to put together a four-week, online class in writing horror fiction. It’s taught by four instructors—one per week—each of whom tackles a different aspect of writing horror.
What is you take on the modern state of horror and Weird fiction? Do you think that a proliferation of avenues to print publication - in additional to the rise of self and electronic publishing - has helped or harmed contemporary speculative fiction?
It seems to me that, in many ways, horror fiction is doing as well as it ever has, maybe even better. You have writers such as King, Straub, and Campbell, continuing to produce vibrant and exciting work. You have writers such as Laird Barron, Sarah Langan, and Paul Tremblay, who are starting to come into their own as powers in the field. And you have newer writers, such as Mike Griffin, Usman Tanveer Malik, and Molly Tanzer, who are making a real splash. It also seems a bit easier for work in the horror field to be taken seriously by a wider audience. A lot of the fiction that has been important to the field is being brought back into print by presses like Valancourt and Tough Times. Due to the internet, it’s easier for writers working in the field to communicate with one another. If there’s one downside to the present moment, it’s that the major publishers remain cautious about publishing horror fiction in the way that they used to. From that perspective, the smaller houses have played an important role in allowing writers such as Chesya Burke, Michael Cisco, and Livia Llewelyn to find a home for their work.
I count you as one of the most inspirational figures working in Weird fiction today, as I always feel positive and fired up to create after hearing or reading one of your interviews. Not to put you on the spot, but any words of advice for writers, both new and veteran? Any advice for readers?
For writers, I’d offer two pieces of advice: write, and practice patience. Specifically, work on your fiction. If you’re doing anything else—posting on Twitter, posting on Facebook, blogging, engaging in lengthy online debates—you aren't writing fiction. Fiction takes time, and is challenging. Social media is quick, and is easy. The temptation to indulge one at the expense of the other is obvious. Resist it. You don’t want to fall into the trap of confusing having an active presence on social media with having a writing career. What’s more, it takes a while, sometimes a long while, for a story or book to find its audience. (I talked about this above.) Don’t lose heart. Keep writing. Eventually, good work finds its way to its audience.
For readers, I’d ask you to continue to try to read writers who are new to you. I know that money can be tight, and there’s already so much to read by writers you know and like, but once in a while, take a chance on something unfamiliar. And whatever you read, when you like something, please let other people know. For me as a writer, there’s still no bigger thrill than seeing folks recommending my work to other readers.
What's next for John Langan? What new projects do you have cooking, or possibly on the horizon?
My third collection will be forthcoming from Hippocampus Press in (I think) early 2016; the working title for it is Sefira and Other Betrayals. My agent continues to work on finding a home for my second novel. I’m wrapping up a number of story commitments, and hope to begin work on my next novel over the summer.
If this matters to you, and not to be morbid, but what do you want to leave behind as your legacy as a writer (or as an individual)?
I would like my wife and sons to know that I loved them, and that I tried to be the best husband and father I could be. I would like my friends to remember me as loyal and kind. I would like my readers to continue reading and talking about my fiction, and I would like it to continue to engage and entertain them, to reward their time.
Thank you so much for your time, John.
Thank you, Ted, for such fine questions, and to you and your readers for reading them.