Wednesday, May 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Acclaimed horror author and Punktown creator Jeffrey Thomas scores big with collection WORSHIP THE NIGHT, now available from Dark Renaissance Books

Cover by Erin Wells

It only took me one page to fall for Jeffrey Thomas.

It was several years back, and I had just received Unholy Dimensions - which is one of the best "concept collections" that I've ever read, Lovecraftian or otherwise - via the post as a gift from the author, and after choosing to remain undeterred by the rather uninspiring cover (as an admitted art/design snob, I always judge books, in whatever small way, by their covers), I dove in excitedly, based entirely on Thomas' reputation amongst fellow writers of the dark and Mythosy.  The opening story in the collection was titled "Bones of the Old Ones," and by the time I'd finished that first page, I knew that I very much liked the way this Thomas fella put together a sentence, how he etched out a scene and drew up his characters.  How he melded crime fiction with science fiction in one story, and how he paid homage to classic Weird lit in another.  How he built his worlds and all the new and dark things that exist there.  Punktown.  Lords of the seven moons, how I swooned hard for Punktown.

Much like a woman knowing within the first five seconds of a blind date if they're ever going to disrobe with that person wiping their brow across from them, a reader often knows after that first page if they're on board with an author, or looking for the exit.  For me, with Unholy Dimensions, it was love at first sight, and that affection has only grown with each new Jeffrey Thomas story, novella, and novel I've read since then, and there have been many.

In addition to being a precise stylist who weaves in enough poetry without turning purple, Thomas is one of those Big Creators, who has carved out vast swathes of newly tamed real estate from the jungle of the abyss, with the most famous of these being the above-mentioned Punktown, the fictional frontier planet that serves as a crossroads for a menagerie of races and entities all struggling to thrive and survive in a bleak, proto-Lovecraftian universe.  And while Punktown put him on the map, and is his most recognizable brand, he's written so much more than that, including a series of stories and novels set in his version of an urbanized Hades, and dozens of other stories and books situated in more general Speculative Fiction arenas, that have been translated into numerous languages around the globe.

Thomas is an important writer of Horror Fiction, and based on his output, range, and immense talent, he deserves to be a household name in the genre, mentioned in concert with the elite writers of dark literature over the past two decades.  Maybe he already is (I don't get out to conventions much), and if so, there is some justice in the cold creative world.  I just know that writers like Thomas should be writing for a living.  Full time.  Cashing checks from Big Apple book deals that allow him a comfortable existence without the need for a distracting "day job," where each hour spent away from the keyboard is another hour ripped from the dark canon.  Thomas was put here to write books of scary stories and Cosmic Horror.  Black, unsettling stuff, and lots of it.  He can surely shoulder the burden, based on his bibliography, as well as his recent and upcoming slate of projects.  Hopefully, someday very soon, The Bigs will come calling, and Jeffrey Thomas' emergence in the shopping mall book store (do they even have those anymore) will finally come to pass.  It has to work out that way.  How can it not?  I mean, Front Shelf writers belong on that Front Shelf, in the mall or otherwise.

With that preachy preamble behind us, I can put away the soap box and move on to the topic at hand, which is Jeffrey Thomas' recent collection Worship The Night (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013).  I say "recent" and not "latest," as I requested a review of the book not too long ago, when it was Thomas' newest release, coming out on the heels of Encounters With Enoch Coffin (written in collaboration with famed Lovecraftian scribe W.H. Pugmire).  Today, as of press time, it is now his second most recent collection, as Ghosts of Punktown was released just last week.  So, you see what I mean about the whole "prolific" thing.

In Worship The Night, Thomas gives us eight substantial tales that run the dark gamut while showing his range, in terms of tone, location, and POV.  Starting with the cover image, many of the stories here seem intensely personal, revealing a candor that is refreshing in Horror Fiction, which can sometimes drape itself in a detached, Kubrickian facade while bloodlessly describing scenes of profound violence.  For what I count as the strongest stories in this collection, Thomas digs deep into his own meat and bones to reveal fresh terrors told in that clean, elegant way that marks all of Jeffrey Thomas' work

"The Lost Family" opens the assembly, and features the seraphic protagonist from his novel Fall of Hades, picking up her trail somewhere midway through that book, giving it a feel of a unearthed chapter.  Thomas' construction of the landscape (cityscape?) of Hell is incredibly interesting, and made somehow simultaneously more hopeful as well as hopeless than your usual portrayals of the Underworld.   An eternal realm of endless terrain is compressed into a claustrophobic crawl through the machinery of damnation, in a realm that is more dangerous than I thought possible.

"Counterclockwise" is the collection's sole Punktown story, and it's a dandy, centering on the bizarre mechanics of one of the many alien cults that have taken up residence on this rough and tumble planet, in this case the mysterious Groi (hmm).  A massive clock tower - "a nightmarish wedding cake of black metal, tiered layers that tapered to the huge clock face that surmounted it" - built across the street from an apartment building drives a tenant to distraction, and then to a whole lot more.  Uninitiated readers also get an introduction to the Choom, the wide-mouthed species indigenous to Oasis (nicknamed "Punktown" - a local epithet that stuck) who collaborate with the human settlers now running the megalopolis, from shipping to shopping to the police force.  Thomas' deft handling of alien races, and the unwholesome monuments they erect, is on full display in that yellowish green clock face of "Counterclockwise."  gur... gur... gur..

"The Holy Bowl" flies in the face of its often comical ruling deity, and possesses a tone that reminds me of the works of Mark Samuels or Thomas Ligotti.  Grim, mean, and hopelessly cold.  I've never read a Jeffrey Thomas story like this, and was pleasantly surprised by the vague familiarity of the setting, and the brutality that waits therein.

"In Limbo," written specifically for this collection, is the first of the outwardly personal stories in Worship The Night, which lends the work a resonant weight that is as heart rending as it is chilling.  Written during the confluence of Hurricane Sandy, Halloween, and what Thomas terms "Life itself" in 2012, "In Limbo" sets a story to which we can all relate in a setting we all recognize, and then drops that cozy, tattered quilt over the cliff into a ravine of nightmares, where the End of Everything might be just outside your door, and seeping into your home.

In "About the Author" and "The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo," you can see Thomas having fun, spoofing trope-chasing while celebrating truth being stranger than fiction in the former, and playing fast and Lovecraftian loose with gangland history in the latter.  Oddly enough, I picked up The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the End of the Underworld from the library the same week as I received Worship The Night.  I haven't yet read the Gallo book, but I'm certain - much to my chagrin - that I won't find any Mythos undertones, nor homages to S. T. Joshi in the official biography of this charismatic Mafioso.

With these light interludes concluded, the plate is cleared for the two remaining stories, both of which are sizable slabs of spitting darkness that seem to build off of each other. "Children of the Dragon" takes our male American protagonist (probably not-so-coincidentally named "French") to Vietnam, a country with which Thomas is intimately acquainted.  In looking for strange, possibly mythical creatures in the haunted jungles and lakes of Southeast Asia, our cryptozoologist first falls for a local bar girl, who becomes his key to discovering hidden-in-plain-sight secrets he never dared imagine.  "Children of the Dragon" is essentially a Lovecraftian piece, set in real world locations visited by Thomas himself, doused in a patina of cosmic dread.  This, of course, grounds a darkly fantastical tale in the minutia of reality, giving it a vibe of being not only wholly possible, but most likely true.

In "The Sea of Flesh," we see the United States - specifically, Salem, Massachusetts - through the eyes of an American-born child of Vietnamese immigrants, and her struggles with identity in two worlds that don't fully embrace her.  This is a 40 page novelette, which could have been expanded out into a full-on novel with just a tad bit of padding, but thankful stays mean and lean and included as the final story in Worship The Night.  "The Sea of Flesh" is a big, layered story populated by complex, multidimensional characters that struggle with job and family, secret desires and the dangers of shared dreaming.  Especially in Salem, around Halloween, days after a rotting hulk of fleshy matter washes up into the harbor.  It's an award-worthy work of Horror Fiction, and I found myself hoping that the story would never end, partly out of a desire to stay in that bluish world of sporadic joy and crushing sadness, but also because I could see the clouds of doom building on the horizon, and wanted to keep them at bay before they could overtake the land and flatten the souls living there.  Some people deserve happiness, and never get it.  Some find it, and then have it taken from them.  Both are cruel, but the latter is the cruelest.

TC:  First of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon and share with all of us.  It’s a true honor to have someone of your stature and talent gracing the electronic pages of TC.

JT:  You’re too kind, Ted. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak about my work – you’ve been very supportive of it.

If you could, and for anyone living under a very heavy and stubborn rock the past few decades, give us a little background on your writing career.  When did you sell your first story, and how did that feel?  Has the “thrill of the sale” gone away over the years?  

Without digging through my records, I’m going to say it was a story called “The White Bat,” accepted by a small press zine called Dead of Night, in 1990. I was over the moon, because I was thirty-three at that time, and had wanted to be a published writer since I was a young boy. In a very humble way, that dream had been realized. That was the start of a long string of sales to small press zines, though that same year I also sold a story to Fangoria’s sister magazine, Gorezone. Ten years later, after having placed stories in a number of anthologies along the way, my first two books came out in rapid succession: the collections Terror Incognita (Delirium Books) and Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy Press). It’s been book after book since then, with most years seeing several published. I feel it was the critical success of Punktown that got that snowball rolling, so I have Jeff VandeerMeer to thank for publishing that book. As for the continued thrill of the sale…well, there are times when I feel a little jaded, which I think is natural, as is the fact that I’m more excited by some sales than others. Naturally, a “best of” or higher profile anthology sale is going to be greater cause for celebration. Sometimes I have to turn down requests to contribute to certain anthologies or publications, because of time constraints (I have a day job, don’t ya know). If I catch myself thinking, “Oh man, I just don’t have the time for that,” as if impatient or overwhelmed, then I need to mentally slap myself and remember the days when being published in anything was still just a dream. For an analogy, I’m reminded of when I was married to my first wife and one night she was feeling romantic, but I was playing "The Legend of Zelda," and I was like, “Come on, I’m in Level 8!” I had to stop and go, oh my God, what happened to me? You know, when you’re younger and going to bed with someone is all you aspire to. So, we need to reevaluate our perspective sometimes! Still, the years have also brought more realistic expectations about being published, and whatever it is that constitutes “fame.” I know I’ll never be famous, so that subdues the fires to a steady low burn, but knowing I have readers who come back to my work keeps those fires from going out altogether.

I think influences are fascinating, and am convinced that childhood interests follow a person for the rest of their lives. With that so clumsily proclaimed, what authors (or genres) did you read during your childhood?  What was your first brush with dark fiction and the fantastical?

I agree about those childhood influences. When I was a kid, "Planet of the Apes" was my favorite movie, and I think it sticks with me to this day…mainly, using science fiction or the fantastic as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, as I do in my far-future Punktown stories. When I was about ten, my favorite novel was Oliver Twist, and likewise I think that book inspired something that recurs in my work: the notion of a person trying to hold onto some kind of goodness at their core, to maintain their dignity, in an environment of oppressive darkness, as Oliver did as an impoverished orphan and later in the company of criminals. That theme of endeavoring to walk upright in a crushing universe is not only important to my Punktown stories, but my series of stories set in Hades, as well. As for my other childhood fiction reading, it was much more geared toward science fiction than horror, until I got into my teens and read novels like I am Legend and The Exorcist, though of course I’d always loved horror movies.

Even from a young age, did you always see yourself as someday becoming a writer?  Was this vocation preordained, or did it become unavoidable later in life?

I've wanted to be a writer since I could write at all, though it mostly started out with my own little comic books. At ten I was trying to write novels, at fourteen completed my first novel, and at fifteen submitted my first novel to a publisher. (It was rejected; as I say, it wasn’t until I was forty-three that I sold my first book.) That novel was a weird combination of "Planet of the Apes" and "A Clockwork Orange." It takes place on a planet colonized by humans, where the indigenous beings are simians. Strife exists between the humans and simians, and youth gangs comprised of either or both races are getting into all kinds of mischief. I think anyone familiar with my Punktown stories can see something larval there. But yes, maybe it was preordained that I become a writer, because the gene is strong in my family. My father was a locally published poet, my mother wrote poetry and a newspaper column, as a teen my sister wrote a newspaper column, and of course my younger brother Scott Thomas is a respected author of horror and fantasy. It was my destiny!

Unlike some contemporary writers of cosmic horror and fiction termed “Lovecraftian,” you use actual names, locations, and other bits of HPL’s work in your own, instead of dancing around it.  Was it a conscious choice to write straight-ahead Lovecraftian fiction, or did the ideas just come out that way on the page?

When I first started writing Lovecraft-inspired work, my inclination was usually to link it directly to his universe, and most of those earlier works were collected in my 2005 book Unholy Dimensions. These days I’m less inclined to name names, preferring a Lovecraftian vibe or approach in the broader sense of that term. Though it depends on the project. For the collection Encounters With Enoch Coffin, which I coauthored with W. H. Pugmire, we both made direct use of Lovecraft’s world and creations.

It might sound crass, or possibly inappropriate, but I feel compelled to mention this:  For as many years as you have been writing, the output you have shown, the creation of a brand new world of limitless possibility (Punktown), and with the quality of your work and the accolades it has received, I just can’t figure out why “Jeffrey Thomas” isn’t a household name in the more gentrified parts of Horror/Weird Fiction Town.  All that said, are you ever confused as to why it is harder for some writers to break through to that next level (a relative term) than others?  I know it’s not about skill, as Big Publishers have come calling for lesser talents.  Is it timing?  Genre?  Expertise in dark arts of convention politicking?

These things aren’t always about level of skill, you’re right. It may sound cynical or like sour grapes, but I’m certain schmoozing and politics can play a part in one’s level of success. You see it, it’s plain. Also, bombastic self-promotion has taken some writers farther than their skill level might merit. And yup, luck and timing. And then I have to squarely blame myself for not trying harder to crack the larger publishers, after suffering disappointments in the early days of my career. But I think you really hit on something when you said genre, and here is where I might really prove to be my own worst enemy. A large percentage of my output has been set in Punktown, and those stories blend the genres of science fiction and horror, not to mention crime fiction and, well, everything else but the kitchen sink. I think most of us who love science fiction movies also love horror movies, and you see horror and SF mixed freely in movies all the time (come on: "Alien"). But when it comes to reading, I don’t know, I think for most people it’s still either/or. SF purists might not care for the strong horror elements of much (though not all) of my Punktown work, while many horror readers may not feel comfortable with a futuristic, extraterrestrial setting. To me, it’s chocolate meets peanut butter, so I don’t get it. But let’s get back to the part about me not being proactive enough; that’s been a big problem for me. I’ve had three mass market novels, and for all three of them, the publisher approached me, asked me to write them something for them. Had they not done that, to this day I might not have had any books that were released by a larger publisher. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t like those long waits for the big houses to reply one way or the other. Maybe I became too comfortable on the level where I stand, and move laterally rather than reach higher. But I’m still pleased with my career, still very grateful. Again, you have to stop and remember being that guy who completed stories only to file them away in the closet, unread and unknown. I count my blessings that I have a bunch of gorgeous indie press books with my name on the cover…and yeah, those three mass market books (A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers, Deadstock, and Blue War) will always be feathers in my cap.

Now that I got you in trouble, let’s change gears at bit, and get to Worship The Night.  This seems like one of your most personal collections, with stories like “In Limbo,” “Children of the Dragon,” and “The Sea of Flesh” seeming to hew very close to the reality bone.  Was this intentional, to dig so close to home?  Or was it just a matter of timing, with the stories reflecting what was going on around you at the time?

I didn’t set out to make Worship the Night a more personal kind of collection than others; it just developed that way via the law of averages, since a lot of my stories – sometimes even the most fantastical stuff, like some of the pieces in my latest, Ghosts of Punktown – draw on my personal experiences, or at least my emotional/psychological state. But however it came together, yes, Worship the Night did turn out that way as a whole. It’s a cathartic process, writing that type of story; but more importantly, it can make the work connect with the reader on a deeper level. Maybe the reader has been through the same kind of experience, or something analogous, and certainly the reader has felt those profound emotions before, experienced those fears or desires. That stuff tastes different on the page when it comes from some level of reality. You aren’t faking it. (You know how a CGI person, no matter how highly detailed, just never looks truly alive?) It’s potent raw material, but it can be tricky to make it work in a fictional presentation, where entertainment always has to be your foremost concern.

Based on its characters, plotting, themes, and execution, I find the novella “The Sea of Flesh” to be an achievement in contemporary horror fiction, and see it as a story that could have easily stretched into a novel.  Did you have any size constraints on it when you began writing it?

Only roughly was there a constraint to keep it on the shorter size as a novel. The story came about when Sea Wallace of Prime Books asked me and my brother Scott to each write a short novel inspired by a piece of artwork created by Travis Anthony Soumis, which became the cover for the finished book, The Sea of Flesh and Ash. But publication was delayed for some years, so eventually we moved the book to an emerging publisher, Terradan Press. The book hasn’t received much exposure, though, hence my decision to reprint “The Sea of Flesh” in Worship the Night. (And Scott’s short novel, The Sea of Ash, is thankfully going to be released as an ebook by Mike Davis of The Lovecraft eZine, who loved Scott’s story to death.) I’m satisfied with the length of the story, though I suppose I could have opened it up further. I think most any short story could be made larger, and a lot of novels could be much more condensed. Some novels feel bloated to me and overstay their welcome, so my own don’t typically get too bulky. My feeling is that the horror story is usually best served by the short form. In the end, unless I’m writing for an anthology with a set word limit, I like to let a story be the length it wants to be, organically.

As you have included “Counterclockwise” in Worship The Night, I want to talk Punktown a little bit, as I find it to be a very rich, varied, and often terrifying world that is an important landmark in the map of cosmic horror fiction.  How and why did you create Punktown, and what did you originally want to do with this place?  Has it lived up to its promise, and has it surprised you while constructing it, block by block, story by story?  How many more Punktown stories do you think are out there?

I came up with the whole fundamental concept of Punktown while riding with my dad somewhere, maybe home from my job, back in 1980. It just sort of burst up from wherever it was brewing in my subconscious, or my muse lagoon, or what have you. I wanted to write of this weird city – more phantasmagorical than strictly science fictional – where any kind of surreal craziness could go down, sort of like a literary Bosch painting. I think the setting has exceeded my initial expectations; it’s grown outwards and upwards over the years, like the city itself. Because all Punktown stories function independently of each other, and rarely carry over the same characters, there’s so much yet to be experienced there that I could no more tire of writing about it than another writer might tire of writing about this world.

“Children of the Dragon” first appeared in the book Geschichten aus dem Cthulhu-Mythos from Festa Verlag as a German translation.  You seem to have a healthy following in Germany (as well as Russia, Poland, and Greece) for your books, both in print and audio.  How did Punktown spread to the Old Country?

The same way I sold those three mass market books: they approached me! Thank God my publishers are more aggressive than I am. Germany’s Festa Verlag was the first publisher to do a translated edition of one of my books: a German language hardcover of Punktown, which featured artwork by H. R. Giger on the cover. Giger signed all the signature sheets, as well. Other translations came later, including a Taiwanese edition of my novel Letters From Hades. I continue to work with Festa, a great publisher, and these days my sales in Germany are stronger than my English language sales. And yes, there was even a three volume set of Punktown stories done as wonderful audio readings, by professional actors, from the company Lausch.

Is the project to turn Punktown into an RPG still in the works?

It is, though it’s unfortunately been moving more slowly than everyone had hoped. It was funded by the publisher’s Kickstarter program, which went over $4,500 beyond its $9,000 goal, but I think the delay has mainly come from transitioning the game from Miskatonic River Press to Chronicle City, who came into the picture late in the game (pardon the pun). All the text is finished, but there’s the matter of getting the interior artwork and maps created.

Tell us a little about your newest book, Ghosts of Punktown.  How has it been working with Dark Regions Press?

I actually turned Ghosts of Punktown in to Dark Regions a few years ago, but I think the delay there was again one of transition: from previous owner Joe Morey to his son Chris Morey. (I’m fond of both guys, Joe being the publisher of Worship the Night via his new imprint, Dark Renaissance Books.) Chris has been awesome to work with; he really wants to make this book something special. Ghosts of Punktown is my darkest Punktown collection, and I guess that’s saying something. It apparently left its Publishers Weekly reviewer in need of smelling salts. The violence in some of the stories all but blinded the reviewer to any other of the book’s qualities or merits. It was a case of a book ending up in the wrong reviewer’s hands. Conversely, Rue Morgue was highly favorable and didn’t mention the violence at all. That being said, it is an intense bunch of stories, and it isn’t inappropriate to feel disturbed by them.

As a huge Kris Kuksi fan, how did you score one of his works to use as the cover of Ghosts of Punktown?

I can’t recall where I found the first examples of his remarkable artwork, but when I did I went straight to check out his web site. I was so blown away that I entered something like a desperate panic – I needed this guy’s work to be on the cover of Ghosts of Punktown! I approached Joe Morey and asked him if we could request using one of Kuksi’s preexisting sculptures as our cover image. Joe said go for it, and so I approached Kuksi himself and found him to be very cool to work with. Later on, Chris Morey went back to Kuksi and asked if we could use a second image on the back cover of the deluxe lettered edition of the book. Kuksi consented, and not only that, agreed to sign all the lettered edition’s signature sheets, as well. I’m blessed to have had some of my favorite artists represented on the covers of my books: not only Giger and Kuksi, but people like Stephan Martiniere and Alan M. Clark.

I usually ask this of writers, especially ones who have been writing for more than just a few years, and who have made an impact on speculative fiction:  How has the nature, makeup, and tone of the weird/horror fiction scene changed during your tenure in the trenches?

I’ve seen a major change, from work that was influenced mainly by bestsellers like Stephen King to work inspired by more weirdly imaginative and daring authors (ironically, from further back in the literary annals) like Lovecraft, Chambers, Blackwood, and so on. I think all the talk and controversy surrounding New Weird and what it is, and if it is, was beneficial in that it stimulated more thought about weird fiction in general. And the massive anthology The Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, not only furthered that conversation but helped expose current writers to a richer legacy of fantastical fiction than they were perhaps exposed to before. We’re in a new golden age of the weird tale (oops, I used “new” and “weird” in the same sentence; sue me), with people like Livia Llewellyn, Michael Cisco, and so many others delivering artistic, exhilarating, unpredictable work. Within just a couple of months I read new collections by Laird Barron, John Langan, and Nathan Ballingrud that just blew my mind. Unfortunately, the work of these brilliant authors will never reach the level of sales of King’s work, but the horror connoisseur who seeks them out will be richly rewarded.

What do you hope to see out of weird fiction going forward?  

More of what I’m seeing now…more and more of it!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of horror fiction, or fiction in general?

Read me to learn how it’s done. Sorry, I’m trying to be more concise as the interview draws to its close. And I need to sell books, bottom line.

Any last words, before I replace the blindfold and light up the cigarette?

Cigarette? What are you trying to do, kill me?

Thank you very much, Jeffrey, for sharing your time, energy, insights and stories with us.  We wish you only the very best, both on and off the page, and look forward to reading your work for a long, long time.