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.

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