Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interview: Simon Strantzas talks Aickman's Heirs

Robert Aickman's fiction is often referred to as "strange fiction" instead of "weird fiction."
Whether or not you're a fan of labels, they do exist even if they best serve consumers. What are the defining characteristics of strange fiction as opposed to weird fiction? Do the two ever overlap?

I wrote a whole essay on this topic for Nightmare magazine last December, so I urge anyone with an interest in this topic to visit that site and read the thing. The truth of the matter is these terms are in many ways unimportant. Horror, Weird, Strange, Dark Fantasy—whatever dark fiction is written, someone will come along and classify it. The thing is, these terms are to a large extent meaningless—the genre is so fluid that there really are no firm dividing lines between them. Some stories wholly occupy one space, some multiple. That's how it should be. But, that said, I did write an essay explaining differentiating the two. Why? Because I feel that it still serves an important purpose. Not to chop up, categorize, and sub-genrify Horror, but instead to identify some of its most pervasive and interesting threads. By understanding how the genre works, I feel we can better understand the genre itself. As writer, that understanding is a powerful tool.
But, your question. I suppose it's unfair to direct readers elsewhere, so the crux of the difference (to my mind; yours may differ) is this: the Weird seems to be primarily an American-led movement, and the Strange European-led. The Weird is concerned with the effect on us of the extra-planetary, and the Strange the effect of our internal world. This is due to a large degree on the mindsets of the two peoples as a whole, the Americas staring at the stars and exploring, the Europeans gazing at their shoes and reflecting. 

I think it's safe to say that many horror and weird fiction fans have at the very least heard of Robert Aickman, and with new, affordable editions of his work published in the last few years many have had the opportunity to read his fiction. What sets Aickman's works apart from his contemporaries and those who came before him? 

Aickman followed in a less-travelled line of ghost story writers whose concerns were of the ambiguously internal. His precursors were writers like Onions and, most specifically, de la Mare, but unlike them he had the influence of modern psychiatric thought and philosophy to bolster his beliefs. Using them, he was able to fashion his thoughts on sexuality, poetry, and dream-logic into something wholly unique at the time it was written. And, still to a large part, it's remained so. Aickman is difficult to imitate, precisely because what he wrote was so uniquely born of his own personality. Not many writers can claim such singularity.

What does Aickman and his work mean to you? How has Aickman influenced not only your work, but the weird/strange/horror fields? What current authors are currently carrying on his legacy?

Aickman has been immensely influential on my own work by showing me how much of a story can be intuited by a reader by only the scarcest of clues. Forming narratives that exist on a different plane than the page is fascinating, though the danger one faces is some readers are unwilling to follow along the entire way. This evokes confusion and frustration, but if I've played my cards right, never a sense of aimlessness.
Aickman's work was heralded by only a select few for a number of years, but I feel that tide is turning. "Aickman's Heirs" being, I hope, of the first of many to champion him. What effect this renewed interest will have on the genre remains to be fully seen, but already we're seeing writers picking up the baton. No one is writing quite like him, of course, but we're seeing strong threads in the work of Steve Rasnic Tem, Ramsey Campbell, Lynda Rucker, Daniel Mills, and Terry Lamsley. To name but a few.

Aickman's Heirs is your second time editing an anthology, with Shadows Edge being your first, with a third coming in the form of The Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume Three. What have you learned from editing? Is this something you enjoy and will revisit?

I've learned that editing is a challenge that demands one's full attention, and that there is little more exciting than the discovery of new talent. But all that time takes its toll, and the more I edit the less time I have for my own work. Some writers may consider it a fair trade, but I'm disinclined to agree. I think my own fiction has been under attended to for some time now, and I hope to remedy that over the coming year.

For the readers who have yet to read anything by Robert Aickman, what are five essential stories that they should start with and why? What makes these stories special?

My favorite perhaps is "The Inner Room", a tale unlike any others in its mystery and symbolism. But it's very oblique, and not where I'd send a new reader. Instead, perhaps I'd point them to my first Aickman tale: "Ringing the Changes". It's perhaps the most straight-forward of his work, yet still maintains that sense that there is more beneath the surface than immediately clear. Or, perhaps I'd direct them to "The Swords", a dazzle of sublimated sexuality, one that's in turn funny and disturbing. It doesn't go in the direction one might expect, though like great fiction, it's conclusions are inevitable. Since I'm naming the popular tales, I might as well suggest "The Hospice", which revels in its bizarre nightmarishness and dislocation. And, finally, a personal favorite: "Marriage", a story about the pull of love and lust.  
There are so many more that this, though, that I could recommend. Aickman was absolutely fantastic, and I'm quite pleased to have this opportunity to help highlight his work by showing how its influenced this new generation of writers. 

Thanks for your time!

The thanks are all mine.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Aickman's Heirs edited by Simon Strantzas

Robert Aickman is a name that many readers of horror/supernatural/weird fiction have probably heard before. He didn't have a huge output of fiction in his time as a writer (I believe he wrote 48 or so stories that were published) but the stories he did write have long since established his name in the genre's history.

Aickman's fiction is most often referred to as "strange stories" instead of weird fiction or horror. His stories are less about the weird crossing over into reality as they are about reality and strangeness being intertwined. Even the most mundane objects or conversations found in his stories are laden with the strange, and his stories often utilize dream logic. One of his most well-known stories, The Hospice, serves as a prime example, and reading the story is akin to playing voyeur to someone's dream. Subtle is also a key word when it comes to Aickman. Much of the dread and unease from his stories comes across in a quiet, subtle manner, and often include liberal doses of dark humor.

These stories have influenced many writers over the years, and one among them is author Simon Strantzas. It was actually Simon Strantzas and Daniel Mills who pointed me in Aickman's direction years ago, and for that I am grateful.

It's also fitting that the man who introduced me to Aickman's work is the editor of the anthology I'm reviewing, Aickman's Heirs. I couldn't think of a better editor for this project, and ever since Shadows Edge I've been eager to read another anthology with Simon behind the helm. And oh boy, was the wait worth it.

Aickman's influence is explored in fifteen stories from some of the finest working authors. Brian Evenson's "Seaside Town" is an excellent choice to kick off the anthology. A man set in his ways gets dragged on a vacation with his girlfriend, and what follows is an excellent example of how to quietly and slowly build up dread.

Richard Gavin's "Neithernor" comes next and, as usual, is a standout. Gavin is a master of creepy stories, and this one ranks up there as one of his most unsettling.

I'm familiar with John Howard, although I haven't read him until I read his story "Least Light, Most Night." I now plan to seek out more of his work. The story itself concerns a man reluctantly accepting his coworker's invitation to a social gathering, and then it gets weird.

I'm most familiar with David Nickle due to his great novels, but the man can write some stellar short fiction as well. "Camp"is about a newlywed couple on a camping trip, and Nickle deftly hands the creep factor.

D.P. Watt's "A Delicate Craft" sees an immigrant worker taking up an unlikely hobby, and Nadia Bulkin's "Seven Minutes in Heaven" explores a small American town with a secret.

Michael Cisco's "Infestations" has a woman struggling with personal demons return to her home city to clean out a deceased family friend's apartment. Dread and paranoia infest the story.

Lynda E. Rucker's "The Dying Season" is perhaps my favorite story in the anthology. A couple spends time in a trailer at a leisure resort during the off season when they meet a young couple staying somewhere nearby. Rucker's story is brimming with subtle unease, and haunted me long after reading it.

Michael Wehunt's "A Discreet Music" stays closer to home, as a grieving widower is changing while confronting truths about himself. John Langan brings the strange into a strip club with "Underground Economy" while Helen Marshall's "The Vaults of Heaven" takes place in Greece as a British archaeologist is brought on to do some work on a few ancient finds.

Malcolm Devlin's "Two Brothers" is a sad story about growing up, while Daniel Mills writes the most subtle story of his that I've read, "The Lake." Growing up is also a major part of his story, as past events shape who we become. "A Change of Scene" by Nina Allan is the longest story in the book, and like some stories before it concerns a vacation gone wrong. The anthology ends with Lisa Tuttle's "The Book That Finds You" which is an eerie tale concerning a woman and her obsession with a certain obscure weird fiction writer.

The fifteen tales paint a powerful landscape of the strange, the subtle, the uneasy, and at times the darkly humorous. Strantzas's sophomore editing gig couldn't have been any better, and I'm sure this anthology will find it's way on many Best Of lists at the end of the year.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Interview: Molly Tanzer Talks Vermilion

To start, this is your first novel? How did it feel to finish such a big project?

It’s certainly my first published novel. I typed THE END on my first novel back in… gosh, maybe 2008? 2009? It was fun, but it was definitely training wheels time. I think that beast was like 175k, and it was bonkers. The second novel I wrote I feel no affection for whatsoever; in fact, I deleted it from my hard drive when I finished it, it was so awful. 

As to your second question… I’ve experienced various sensations at various times, with Vermilion. Finishing the first draft felt great. Finishing the draft that went out on submission felt… exhilarating. Finishing the version that’s now printed and thus no longer editable felt pretty terrifying, actually!

Much of your fiction takes place in historic time periods, but to my knowledge this is your first time writing a Western. What attracted you to this setting? What did you set out to do with the tropes and the genre?

My initial desire to have a conversation with the Western came about when I moved to Colorado. The scale of the landscape was amazing—I had visited before, but waking up every day to see mountains, being able to explore them at my leisure… living right where the prairie meets the front range… wow. It triggered my memories of being wild for the Little House books as a kid, and bam, I wanted to write something about this place. Uh, and I was also watching a lot of Deadwood.

The thing is… as you noted, Westerns have certain tropes. Most modern Westerns, in terms of novels and film/television, seek to either draw attention to those tropes, or to invert them, because even though the Western has fallen out of favor, we’re still all too aware of those conceits. In terms of characters, you have the Gritty Loner, the Native Threat, the Trifling Whore vs. the Good Woman, and so on. In terms of plots, you have A Stranger Comes to Town, the Man with a Past, The Person from Back East Who Must Leave Civilization Behind, and so forth and so on. Because they’re all very familiar, a Western that unconsciously draws on tropes can come off as feeling a bit outdated… take Appaloosa, the film, for example. While it was an enjoyable movie with a lot to like, I was annoyed by the movie’s embrace of the Trifling Whore trope in Renee Zellweger’s character. Maybe it’s a holdover from the novel, I’m not sure, but regardless, it was boring because it was just so dang familiar.

With Vermilion, I wanted to invert the Western while still paying homage to and drawing on the tropes of a genre that I love. So, while I might start with a Gritty Loner as a hero(ine), she goes East, not West; she moves from a state of detrimental independence to flourishing under positive interdependence (in the traditional Western, the hero usually has to “go at it” alone, leaving behind any wimminfolk or friends). Additionally, throughout the novel, traditional outsiders, even within the “Weird” Western, such as women, progressive thinkers/social radicals, and racial minorities prove more “civilized” and establish order much more effectively than those in a position of privilege. Oh, and of course, Lou is a person of color, and she gets a white sidekick. That was also fun to write!

One of the major themes throughout the book is gender fluidity and sexual orientation. Could you discuss why you chose to explore these themes at length and what you hope readers took away from this theme?

First and foremost, I write what I like to read! But it was also part of my mission above. Classic Westerns are often relentlessly heterosexual—or at least, they try to convince us they are, by having rough-and-tumble ‘good buddies’ visit a whorehouse or get married to make it clear they’re not really hot for one another. Hell, even Red River, which is famous (infamous?) for its awesomely homoerotic subtext, pairs Montgomery Clift’s Garth with a lady at the end, much to Cherry’s dismay. I’m having a hard time even coming up with a classic Western that features lesbians, or the implication of lesbianism. Maybe a little in East of Eden, but like, that’s kind of a stretch. (If anyone knows of any, let me know in the comments!)

Westerns are often very traditional in their approach to gender roles, as well… when men were men and all that. Women, with notable exceptions, are almost exclusively relegated to domestic duties, and even the ones that saddle up to ride with the boys are usually doing it to stay close to the man they love. Mattie from True Grit is the obvious counterpoint, but that’s one of the reasons True Grit is so good. And when you do get a gender-ambiguous character, like Calamity Jane in Deadwood, they tend to be tragic in some way. I wanted to spin this, and have a genderfluid heroine at the center of the narrative, one whose ambiguousness helps her, rather than makes her some sort of object of pity or spite, and who doesn’t have some sort of magical transformation moment where she puts on a dress to amaze the hero, showing she was “beautiful all along.” Meh.

As to what I wanted readers take away… I’m not sure how to answer that. Sure, I had a lot on my mind when I was writing it, but first and foremost I wanted Vermilion to be a fun adventure story—and I saw the characters and their private lives as natural fits for the tale, rather than object lessons. If anything, I wanted to normalize the presence of such characters and themes within the genre of the Western, not draw attention to them!

On that note, I’ll point to a novel that was almost constantly on my mind while drafting Vermilion: Connie Willis’s Uncharted Territory, a novel that at first I wasn’t sure I liked when I read it in college, but really stuck with me in that way of better books. For those who haven’t read it, I shan’t spoil it, but I actually structured the first chapter to be an homage to her novel in my first draft, and though I eventually chose to introduce Lou in a different, more effective (for my project) way, I kind of still regret the loss. Those who have read Willis’s novel probably know what I’m edging around—and anyone who hasn’t, who liked Vermilion, might want to pick up a copy. It’s a Space Western, and it’s super good.

Vermilion has quite a lot going on, being a weird Western with elements of Ghostbusters and a liberal dose of Chinese mythology/folklore. The psychopomp business is especially fascinating. What sort of research did you do for this novel?

What sort of research didn’t I do would probably be an easier question to answer. Of course I put a lot of hours into researching the Chinese cultural element, because I wanted to be as respectful as possible in my treatment of Chinese-American culture and the Taoist traditions Lou’s work draws on. I also read and did just a ton of random stuff… I visited a train museum, drove up to Cheyenne to see the lay of the land to give those scenes a touch of verisimilitude, researched the properties of cinnabar/vermilion… hiked all around the Rocky Mountains (oh, the sacrifices I make for art!). Hell, I even contacted a period firearm museum for information on Lou’s LeMat, toured the death facilities at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and got a prescription filled at a Chinese apothecary in San Francisco after reading all about traditional Chinese medicine in a copy of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Fun times!

Now for the big question. Are there any plans for a sequel? Will we see further adventures of Lou Merriwether or more fiction set in the same world? 

More fiction, certainly. This August, Nightmare Magazine will be reprinting a short story of mine called “Qi Sport,” which is about Lou’s first adventure. It’s referenced in Vermilion, but this is the full account. And next year, Lazy Fascist will be releasing a standalone edition of “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe,” a novella/short novel of mine (which you actually reviewed). “Rumbullion” is very tangentially related to Vermilion. No one who read “Rumbullion” on its own would have any idea it was related to anything else, but I think anyone who reads Vermilion first will notice some overlap.

As for an actual sequel… I feel confident saying Vermilion won’t be Lou’s last adventure. We’ll have to see! 

What else can readers expect from you in the coming months?

I have several short stories coming out—one in Joe Pulver’s anthology Cassilda’s Song, and all-lady King in Yellow anthology, that’s sort of about Ayn Rand and Carcosa… it’s called “Grave-Worms.” I have another story called “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” in Innsmouth Free Press’s She Walks in Shadows, ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Oh, of course, and “But Only Because I Love You,” in Dreams From The Witch House.

In terms of big stuff, I have another novel coming out this November from Lazy Fascist, called The Pleasure Merchant. It’s an 18th century picaresque about Tom Dawne, a wigmaker’s apprentice who becomes a manservant when he is dismissed after one of his wigs is sabotaged, and then rises through late 18th century society… but as Tom’s station changes, so do his pleasures… Anyways, it’s probably my most personal novel to date, and my least speculative work (even if it’s the most horrifying, in a lot of ways). It’s very loosely based on the real-life 18th century philosopher and poet Thomas Day, who was bewitchingly terrible. If people have heard of Thomas Day, it’s usually because he wrote a poem called “The Dying Negro” that was intended to drum up support for the abolition of slavery (good!), but Day’s sympathies did not extend to women. Because he was unlucky in love—this guy was basically an 18th century “nice guy”/MRA and all women he came near basically fled his presence—he adopted two orphan tween girls, took them to France to isolate them, and tried to train them in the hopes one of them would blossom into his ideal bride. The account of his experiment is best chronicled in Wendy Moore’s How To Create The Perfect Wife which I highly recommend if you want an excellent pop history read about how horrible the 18th century really was.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Author Molly Tanzer has been a longtime favorite here at the Arkham Digest. Both of her collections, A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion help set the standard for modern weird fiction. Vermilion is Molly Tanzer's first novel, and is one of the biggest releases of the year. The description from publisher Word Horde's website:

Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.
When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

The West is always best when it's served with a liberal dose of weird. Tanzer's novel is unique in many ways. Lou Merriwether, the protagonist, is a half-Chinese girl in a time and place where the Chinese are looked upon as being less than human. Being a psychopomp also further alienates her from the world, as people seem to regard people in her line of work as being creepy. Lou has a few close friends, but is a bit of a loner. She's stubborn and tough and far from perfect. She makes mistakes, sometimes acting without thinking, and berates herself for not thinking things through. She doesn't give up though, she is determined and tenacious.

Gender fluidity is also a prevalent theme throughout the novel, and the willingness to explore the subject is one of the novel's great strengths. Too often fantasy protagonists are generic, cookie-cutter characters, but not so in Molly Tanzer's fiction. Lou  is at her most comfortable wearing men's clothing and cutting her hair short, and going by Lou instead of Elouise. Her sexuality itself is a little less clear and defined. Gender fluidity doesn't end with Lou, but for the sake of spoilers I'll leave it at that. 

The diversity on display is perfect. Characters of all races and orientations are represented. The world building is excellent, and Molly has created a gritty Western world in which the supernatural exists alongside the normal. Bears talk and have their own civilization, co-existing with man despite tensions. Spiritual and undead threats are handled by professional psychopomps like Lou, while monsters are dealt with by licensed monster hunters. 

Woven throughout are elements of Chinese folklore and mythology. Geung Si, a hopping vampire/zombie hybrid from Chinese folklore, make a few appearances. While Lou has many tools at her disposal for her psychopompery, she deals with Geung Si by using more traditional Chinese methods. Her other methods deal with using some interesting, steampunk-esque technology. Tanzer created a really interesting system for how it all works, and I'd love to see more.

My only real complaint with the novel was the villain. At times he was way too hammy, one of those villains who catches the character only to reveal all by talking and talking and talking. Tanzer handled this well however, as even the protagonist refers to tiring of the villain and his "hammy" ways. This self-awareness helped me overlook what I thought to be the novel's one deficit.

Fans of fantastic adventure books and readers looking for something fun and different shouldn't hesitate to pick this one up, as it's already one of the best books of 2015.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Interview: Jesse Bullington, editor of Letters to Lovecraft

So far you've penned three published novels and numerous short fiction. As far as I know this is your first time editing an anthology. How did you adjust to the change? Is editing something you see yourself doing again in the future?

You're correct that this is my editorial debut, but I made my first fiction sale something like fifteen years ago, so I've logged a lot of hours working closely with professional editors. The funny thing is you learn as much from the bad editors as from the good ones. I've also beta-read a lot of my colleagues' work, so critically eyeballing other people's work isn't anything new. So adapting to being on the other end of the process was fairly painless, and a nice change of pace. That said, the work itself is just as time-consuming and headache-inducing as writing, so while I'm sure I'll do more of it in the future I doubt I'll make a regular habit out of it.

Letters to Lovecraft is an anthology with a concept that really stands out to me. Mythos anthologies abound, and there's also a good deal of non-Mythos themed Lovecraft anthologies, so seeing an anthology tackling his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature was refreshing. What inspired you with such an original anthology idea? Why have authors respond with fiction instead of short essays of their own?

The premise was something Stone Skin Press already had in mind when they invited me to edit the project. As soon as I found out what exactly they had in mind for the anthology my enthusiasm doubled, because as a longtime Lovecraft fan I'm of course very familiar with the essay, and it seemed a remarkably novel way of engaging with the Gentleman of Providence. Asking for original fiction in response instead of essays seemed far more intriguing, because by doing so they'd be demonstrating their ethos instead of simply explaining it. Since including your own work in projects like this can often seem gauche, the only downside was knowing that as anthologist I wouldn't be able to write something myself for such a neat premise.

With the anthology, what was it you most hoped to accomplish and what did you want to avoid? 

My primary goal was providing readers with an interesting anthology, one that represented a wide array of tones and styles instead of just ringing the same bell over and over.

The fictional responses from authors varied greatly. Some chose similar passages, some did not. Some wrote stories supporting statements from the essay and some wrote stories opposing the same statements. Are there any portions of the essay in which you think Lovecraft was 'spot on' and were there any portions where you felt he was totally or partially wrong?

Well, I don't wish to simply repeat the particulars I singled out in my introduction to the anthology, so let me see...I'm in harmony with a lot of Lovecraft's assertions, and even those I don't necessarily agree with are of course well-reasoned and articulate. If we can consider anyone a preeminent authority on the titular topic, it would be Howie, but as a result the essay is full of broad-sweeping generalizations--that there's one test of what constitutes "the really weird," etc.--which I find more interesting than convincing. But then I'm not much for absolutes in general--that this philosophy worked for Lovecraft is evident enough, and it's fun to contemplate. Oh, and in terms of his assessment of his predecessors, I'm more or less in agreement with him in some instances (William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen,and his particularly rich survey of Poe), but think he gives others short shrift--Matthew Lewis' The Monk, for example.

Do you feel that Lovecraft's essay is still relevant today, nearly a century after it was written?

Absolutely, or else I never would have edited the project! For all his shortcomings, Lovecraft remains one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, and I think future generations will always be able to learn a thing or five from both his fiction and his literary philosophy.

Finally, are there any future projects that you're willing to talk about?

A lot of my works in progress remain Top Secret Clown Business, but one that I can talk about is Swords v. Cthulhu, an anthology that I'm co-editing with Molly Tanzer. As you might guess from the title, it's a collection of action-heavy fantasy with a dark or historical bent. After the somewhat esoteric nature of my first anthology it's been refreshing to take a turn at something much more straightforward--we're still finalizing the table of contents, so while I don't want to drop any names just yet, I will say we've scored a number of luminaries of modern Lovecraftiana, as well as veterans of neighboring genres...

Thanks for your time, it was pleasure.

Thank you for the opportunity, and of course for taking the time to read the book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: Letters To Lovecraft edited by Jesse Bullington

Love him or hate him, it's impossible to deny Lovecraft's legacy. He is considered a pioneer of weird fiction, even if others of his time or before his time wrote stories that could easily qualify as being in that category. His work has inspired many, and his Mythos alone has swollen to obese proportions with fiction, some of which are finely polished gems and others are borderline fan fiction and pastiche.

For many, myself included,  Lovecraft was an introduction into the world of weird fiction. I still remember reading "Call of Cthulhu" for the first time, home on break from college and the only one awake in the house, reading the story which had been posted on some website, white letters on a black background. It called to me, and the following day I found myself walking out of a bookshop with a Lovecraft collection in hand.

Lovecraft's fiction lives on, and Lovecraft scholarship is still alive and well. Books collecting his letters (he wrote letters like you wouldn't believe) can easily be found, as well as anthologies containing stories said to be Lovecraft's favorites among his predecessors and contemporaries.

Fiction and letters aside, Lovecraft penned an essay titled "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In it he spoke of other horror writers and stories, and laid out his own philosophy on what makes successful horror fiction.

Author Jesse Bullington recently edited Letters to Lovecraft, an anthology of fiction written in response to portions of Lovecraft's essay. The title is a slight bit misleading, as these are not letters written to Lovecraft in response to the essay, but pieces of fiction. In a world where the market is glutted by Mythos fiction and Lovecraftian anthologies such a different approach is a welcome treat.

In his hefty intro, Bullington puts it all on the table. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Lovecraft is laid bare without bias. The editor also makes an excellent point about "Supernatural Horror in Literature" being important not just for writers deriving inspiration from Lovecraft, but for anyone working in horror. The writer asked several authors he admires to read the essay, choose a quote that resonates with them in some way, and write a fictional response. Some stories support the quote they chose, others set out to prove that quote wrong, and others do a bit of both. This isn't a clear cut "I agree/disagree" with the passage as much as it is an emotional response. Some authors chose the same passage and came up with wildly different stories, depending on what the passage meant for them. The result is an anthology unlike any I have read before, one that truly stands out as one of 2014's finest.

Many readers decide whether or not an anthology is worthwhile based on the ratio of great/good/bad stories. In this case the anthology was to this reviewer's taste, as there isn't a bad story in the bunch, although some are more effective than others.

Brian Evenson's "Past Reno" and Gemma Files's "That Place" both use the same quote for inspiration and both deal with children settling the estates of their deceased parents. Otherwise they are very different stories. Evenson focuses on the idea of uncertainty and the unknown. His subtle tale of a man suffering severe anxiety on his drive to settle his estranged father's estate is an ambiguous tale. Is the man's reality coming apart because reality is truly wearing thin, or is it all a manifestation of his fear and anxiety? Gemma Files works with an expanded version of the quote from Lovecraft's essay, and uses the basis of Narnia novels as a foundation for a much darker tale. Siblings return home to settle their parents' estate and remember a weird game they played in childhood, which turns out to be a little more than just a game. Angela Slatter works with the second half of the quote Gemma Files chose,  and her story "Only the Dead and the Moonstruck" is a bit more overtly Lovecraftian. Another tale of loss, this story instead deals with a family coping with the disappearance of one of the siblings. Emotions run high, and guilt is shared by the mother and also the sister, who may have seen something the night her brother went missing. A very effective tale of dread indeed.

Writers Nadia Bulkin, Robin D. Laws, and Paul Tremblay all responded to a quote about how proper weird tales have "a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces." The three stories were some of my favorites from the anthology. Bulkin's "Only Unity Saves the Damned" is a story about three outsider friends who make a hoax based on an urban legend, and how it leads to all of their downfalls. The idea of small towns being a "black hole" whose pull is impossible for many to escape is a theme of her story and one she executes perfectly. In "The Trees" Robin D. Laws brings readers on a sailing voyage with a grieving man who is brought on board by his uncle. He feels out of place for the entire voyage, and even more so when the ship reaches it's mysterious destination and he realizes what the purpose of the voyage is. Paul Tremblay sets out to prove Lovecraft wrong with "_______." The story draws dread not from atmosphere but from a very commonplace setting and an awkward conversation where something is just not right. The story is a true chiller, and it takes an author with talent to infuse such a scenario with as much dread as Tremblay does.

The last authors to tackle a shared quote are Jeffrey Ford and Chesya Burke. They chose a quote about fertility rites being performed by some degenerate, subhuman minorities. Jeffrey Ford's darkly humorous "The Order of the Haunted Wood" sees a fertility cult evolve alongside civilization, and to continue to exist behind the scenes of the corporate pharmaceutical world of "male enhancement" medicine. Chesya Burke's approach to the quote instead has nothing to do with fertility cults, and all to do about Lovecraft's racism, which is apparent in the quote. In "The Horror at Castle of the Cumberland" Burke writes about a young white man who has fits, whether they are of a religious nature or purely biological and accompanied with hallucinations isn't too clear. The story is about having a choice, and whether people make a choice based on what they believe or what everyone around them believes. For many, sadly, it is easier to be a follower rather than a leader. The boy witnesses a black man and his daughter become the victim of a mob for a crime they didn't commit, and the boy is left with the choice of going along or speaking out. It's a story that packs quite a punch.

The rest of the stories didn't overlap in which quotes they chose to respond to, but some overlapped in other ways. Stories by Orrin Grey and Ken Asamatsu both involve Lovecraft himself. In Grey's wonderful "Lovecrafting" HP is referenced, along with other classic weird fiction writers, but doesn't take center stage. The story is written in movie script format, making it further standout, and is one of the highlights of the anthology. Asamatsu's "Glimmer in the Darkness" features Lovecraft more at the forefront, as he has a conversation with a strange man while eating ice cream. Not the most effective story in the anthology, but entertaining nonetheless.

Livia Llewellyn's fiction always hits the mark, and "Allocthon" is one of the most effective stories in the anthology. It follows a woman in the 30's living in a company house in some sort of depression work town. Llewellyn chose a quote about nature and it's mysteries, and how nature "speaks" to man. The woman in Livia's story is stuck in a humdrum life and feels much like a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape. Things change as she goes on a company picnic and nature has an odd effect on her. She seems to be stuck in a loop, replaying the same day over and over, different every time.  A powerful story, as Llewellyn writes nothing less.

"The Lonely Wood" by Tim Lebbon follows a man visiting a cathedral and experiencing a sort of "personal apocalypse" making him question his beliefs (or lack thereof). Cameron Pierce's "Help Me" tackles a quote about judging a weird tale not on it's highest points, but on what it can achieve emotionally at it's most mundane point. Inspiration from Lovecraft's Innsmouth permeate this creepy little tale. David Yale Ardanuy tackles the legend of the Wendigo in "One Last Meal, Before the End." The story takes place in isolation, and gore abounds. Stephen Graham Jones brings his master storytelling talents to bear in "Doc's Story", a werewolf tale. Kirsten Alene's "There Has Been a Fire" is a subtle, poetic story about a professor. This was one of my favorite stories and the first fiction I've read from Kirsten Alene. The story is surreal, and manages to be both creepy and lyrically beautiful at the same time. A powerful combination.

The anthology ends with stories from two heavy-hitters of current weird fiction. Molly Tanzer chooses a quote about weird often appearing in works that viewed as a whole could fit a different genre entirely. "Food From the Clouds" goes forward in time to a London which has reverted back to more ancient ways of doing things. Barons own private lands in the aftermath of some sort of semi-apocalyptic comet crash. The story follows two poachers as they enter a walled-in area that no one else has set foot in since the comet crash. A fun story with bits of creepiness, Tanzer has managed to convey the feel of a much more fleshed within the confines of a short story. Not many fantasy authors can pull off such a feat.

The Mandela Effect, which is when people (usually many) remember things happening differently. Often these are unimportant things, such as people swearing that the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein Bears. It's mostly chalked up to man's memory being unreliable at best, but more esoteric theories abound dealing with parallel dimensions and all sorts of strangeness. "The Semi-Finished Basement" by Nick Mamatas is about four people meeting in a basement as a sort of support group. They eat blondies and bicker and discuss how they remember certain things in history as different from the rest of society. That the change was effected over the whole race but for some reason the veil wasn't pulled over their eyes. One man, a schizophrenic, goes on and on about The Crawling Chaos and Egypt. The ending is a riot, and a definite twist that I didn't see coming. Mamatas is an intelligent writer, and his Lovecraft-inspired tales are among the best.

By looking beyond the superficialities of the Cthulhu Mythos, and bypassing common Lovecraftian themes to look instead at the essay that outlines Lovecraft's philosophies behind weird horror, Jesse Bullington and his 18 authors have done something truly special. Letters to Lovecraft is easily one of 2014's best anthologies, and a must read for weird horror fans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interview: Rich Hawkins

With your latest novella you take readers to a small, seemingly isolated, small British town. I find that a setting can have a huge effect on a piece of horror fiction, as atmosphere can make or break a story. What drew you to this type of setting?

I was born and raised in a village very similar to the one in ‘Black Star, Black Sun’, and I’ve always loved horror/weird stories set in small communities. The sense of dread and isolation seems to work well in those stories, especially when combined with Lovecraftian themes. I spent twenty-seven years of my life living in my home village, so the idea that I could take that small village mundaneness and add some cosmic horror themes to it was very appealing to me.

Black Star, Black Sun is a novella, and is your second book to be published. Your first, The Last Plague, is a much longer work. Do you find the novel length or novella length to be more challenging?

The novel, definitely. It’s a long road and I seem to put more pressure on myself with a novel.This leads to bouts of anxiety and stress punctuated by moments of relief after a good day’s writing. I’m a bit fucked up, I suppose.  The novella holds a different challenge in that its brevity compared to a novel demands a leaner, more streamlined plot, but at the same time needs some meat on the bones. At the moment, I feel more drawn towards novellas, but that may change in the future - I’m still a rookie and I’ve got a lot to learn.

Besides Lovecraft, what other authors and pieces of fiction lent inspiration for Black Star, Black Sun?

I’m a big fan of Adam Nevill, and while I think his writing is not particularly Lovecraftian, it was a great inspiration to me when I was working on the novella. Also, Laird Barron’s work has influenced me greatly and continues to do so. I first read ‘The Imago Sequence’ about two years ago, and it floored me. It’s fantastic.

Growing up, were you always a reader of dark fiction? What draws you to these types of stories? Do you have any personal favorites (stories, novels, authors)?

Not always. I began reading horror/sci-fi/dark fiction in my early teens, but as I grew older, into my late teens and early twenties, I stopped reading any sort of fiction due to a greater interest in alcohol, women and sports. That was until my mid-twenties and I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Pet Cemetery’, and I rediscovered my love of horror fiction. King, in turn, led me to Lovecraft and contemporary writers, and ten years later my house is full of books.
I’m not sure what draws me to horror. I’m quite pessimistic, if that matters. I was a strange child. Horrific things have always intrigued me. If I’m honest, I think I find comfort in horror.
As I said above, the works of Adam Nevill and Laird Barron are great favourites of mine. Other writers whose work I admire greatly are Gary McMahon, MR James, Tim Curran, David Moody, Wayne Simmons, Conrad Williams and Nathan Ballingrud.I would advise anyone who hasn’t read their work to check it out.
And Lovecraft, of course…

As an author of dark fiction, what is it you hope most to accomplish with your work? What do you want readers to take away from your stories?

At the moment I’m just trying to build a portfolio of work and see where it takes me. I’m not writing for the money (or lack of it); I write because I have to, I think. It’s a strange feeling. I couldn’t even tell you why I started writing stories in the first place.
I’m just grateful that some people are reading my stories. If I can scare, unsettle or even affect them in some way, I’ll be overjoyed.

As of the time of this writing I haven't had a chance to read The Last Plague yet. Does it draw any parallel with Black Star, Black Sun?

Not really. There are undertones of cosmic horror in The Last Plague, but I never intended it to be overtly Lovecraftian, and it’s a different story in many ways. They are both very bleak stories, however, so they’ve got that in common, and they both deal with humanity’s helplessness against alien horrors.

Any future writing projects that you would care to tell readers about?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Last Plague, set some months after the events of the first book. Once that’s done I have an idea for a horror novel about religious fundamentalismand missing children.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks for inviting me over, Justin. It’s been a pleasure.