Monday, May 9, 2016

Review: Brutal Pantomimes by Rhys Hughes

Egaeus Press is a publisher that consistently prints beautiful hardcover editions, and has become one of my favorite small publishers of the past few years. Their most recent offering is Brutal Pantomimes, a new collection by Welsh author Rhys Hughes, who writes absurdist fantasy and horror. Humor is a large part of his work, which consists of several novels and hundreds of short stories. Michael Cisco provides the introduction.

For awhile I've been familiar with who Rhys Hughes is, but this collection is the first time I've read his fiction. And while it wasn't my favorite release from Egaeus Press, it was still a solid collection, further proof that this is a publisher worth following. Physically, this book is a beauty. Lithographically printed, cover and endpaper art by František Tichý, and illustrations by Jacques Callot.

Humor can be truly hit or miss, and sometimes depends upon the mood of the reader. Hughes writes fiction that is imbued with humor, and at times I found it tiresome. To remedy this, I took my time reading the book, and found that I much more appreciated it in that manner. The stories within show a clever mind and a dangerous imagination. Hughes manages to find the whimsical in nearly everything, and considering this collection contains his 500th written story (500!!!!) I would dare say he has one of the most powerful imaginations working today.

Some Stories:

The Jam of Hypnos is a great opener for the collection, and one of my favorites. A young man is given a power by the Deity of Dreams. Any food the man dreams of will materialize next to him while he slumbers. The man ends up marooned on an island, where he must use his power to survive and escape. The story plays with the gift/curse duality. Worth noting, this story first appeared in a Poe tribute anthology.

The second story, The Private Pirates Club, is a funny set of stories with a story. A barroom full of men, each one telling his own story about the pirate they believe to be "the world's second worst pirate." These tales eventually lead to the punchline about the World's Worst Pirate, and the story is quite a fun little tale of adventure.

Corsets on the Outside pokes fun at Steampunk fashion, but overall fell a bit flat for me. Wise Man follows, and while at times I found the story really funny, it seemed overlong and embodies the tiresome comment I made earlier, although there are many moments of brilliance in the story.

Another adventure story that I quite enjoyed was The Inflatable Stadium. This absurd adventure story begins with a man who puts wheels on his ship, and finds himself blown miles and miles inland. In a silly town he meets an assortment of oddball characters, including an inventory with multiple pocket watches, a cruel but pretty woman acting as the town's tyrannical leader, and a fractured version of the town's former mayor, who knows appears as copies of himself in all different sizes. The man finds himself trapped, and schemes to escape and take his revenge on the town in the form of the inventor's inflatable stadium. The story moves long briskly, and was definitely a favorite of mine.

The Eeriness That Lurks on the Far Side of Furniture is one hell of a story title. The story itself is quite short, but doesn't find itself lacking because of that. A man seeks shelter in a mansion filled with bizarre furniture, the failed experiments of an inventor hoping to turn ordinary furniture into weapons for war. The majority of the story is the conversation between the two men as they thread their way through the labyrinth of cupboards, chairs, couches, tables and cabinets.

Overall, an enjoyable collection and a nice introduction to the work of Rhys Hughes. Even though I found the humor to be a mixed bag, I feel that his imagination may be unmatched, and I'm very much looking forward to digging into more of his work.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Rejoice in the Madness of the xPulver!

Come rejoice and dance and sing
Rejoice in the madness of the Yellow King
And if your city turns into a city unseen
I'm sure that the madness has been... enough

-For Greater Good - Le Jugement Du Roi En Jaune

"Dream is the key."

It sounded like cliche bullshit, but instead of turning to leave there was something in the woman's eyes that made me hesitate. She knew.

I handed over a large chunk of my cash, and she gathered what I would need. My American ears struggled with her German accent, and I worried that I would miss an important part of her instructions, and that the entire trip would end up being a wash. Once I had everything in hand, she repeated the steps and escorted me out of her shop.

The streets of Berlin were quiet as I walked back to the empty apartment. A small, old building tucked onto a corner, it looked like a large stone wedge. The apartment was a suite of rooms on the sharp corner, and the building was dark and quiet enough that it was obvious I was the only person staying there.

As night fell, I laid out the items I obtained from the woman and began the ritual as she described. I felt sick when the substances kicked in, and seemed to enter a feverish state immediately. I could feel each drop of sweat on my body, and they had entered a cycle where they would freeze before melting and dripping down a bit before freezing again. I curled into a ball on the mattress that was the apartment's sole piece of furniture, and after what seemed hours the fever passed and I felt a serenity take it's place.

My body relaxed, and I laid back on the mattress and steadied my breathing, allowing sleep to overtake me. "Dream is the key."


I don't remember entering a gate, a portal or a door. My surroundings didn't slowly rematerialize. I was simply there, and I knew I was where I wanted to be. The room was made of rough stone, and lit by candles which  were placed on the floor around the room's edges, I didn't know how much time I had, so I walked out of the room's only entrance.

After following a short hallway I found myself outside, standing in a small forest glade. It was twilight, but two giant moons in the sky provided plenty of pale illumination. The air was cool and moist, and nearly beyond earshot a lute played a sad, slow song.

I followed the path out of the glade and realized I was walking a path in a large, wooded garden of some kind. The music grew louder, and as I neared it I began to notice others wandering the paths. Their clothing was dated. Robes, simple outfits made of rough cloth, most in tatters. Several of my fellow wanderers were crying, some were mumbling, but all of them were smiling. Big, idiot grins on every face, but not smiles of happiness.

The music led me to a courtyard, where there were many of these people gathered. Some conversed in small groups, while others cavorted in dance around the lute player. The murmur of conversation seemed off, and something about it bothered me. I walked through the courtyard and continued to be unnerved by the murmur of voices, although hearing snatches of conversation more clearly only served to further confuse me. None of them were talking about anything that should cause worry, but something about their speech itself blanketed my mind with anxiety. 

It wasn't what they were saying. It was how they were saying it. It was the punctuation. They spoke as if they were reading aloud from a paper riddled with excessive and abnormal punctuation. Pauses were longer than they should be, as if multiple ellipses were strung together. Some words were emphasized out of proportion, one exclamation point wasn't enough. Some words were slurred like they had been shortened.

I didn't know how much longer I could listen, so I pushed my way through the courtyard. On the far side was a gate into another courtyard, flanked by guards. They wore rusted plate, and had pale, sickly faces. The guards looked at me intently as I neared, but without saying a word they opened the gate and ushered me through.

The second courtyard was smaller, and appeared to have once been extravagant. Ages of decay and decadence had taken a toll, and the place wasn't much more than a pile of rubble and refuse. The people in here still wore tatters, but their garments appeared to have once been finer than the clothes of the revelers from the previous courtyard. Nobles, once, they all wore masquerade masks, but I could still see the grins. They milled about and socialized, stuck in an endless party. Several looked at me as I passed but none said a word. I had found what I had sought.

In the center of the yard stood a broken throne, and seated upon it was the reason I undertook my journey. The man seated upon the throne did not look kingly. He was shorter than average height, slightly rotund, and wore garments more tattered than any of the other inhabitants of his realm. His cloak was yellow with age and decay, as were his pants, shirt and boots. He had a large, grey bear and a thick mustache that began to curl up at the edges. His face alone did not have the grin of madness that was a fixture on every other face in his court, including the wretch at his feet.

The wretch wore nothing but bright, torn, red trousers, and a metal collar fastened around it's throat. It held a large scroll in its one claw, and a quill in another, and was writing at a furious pace, copying every word the King uttered.

I approached the throne and heard the King reciting words to his scribe in a language that was foreign to me, but I recognized the bizarre manner of speaking as being the same as his subjects. He beckoned me forward and stopped his bizarre rant. His eyes were keen, and I realized that although he must have been as mad as his subjects that hidden underneath that madness was a powerful cunning.

He coughed, and then spoke to me in my own tongue. Smoke poured out of his mouth with every word, and curled upwards, question marks floating above his head.

"U.....Come Frwrd. Do you kno where u are?????????????????????"

"I know this place. But I don't know it's name."

"Iz a name.......... importnt? Some call it cArcosa, some names in tongues long forrrrrrgotten. it NOTHING.........."

When he spoke to me directly I felt sharp pains in my head, and I wondered how much longer I had.

"Do you know why I'm here?"

He laughed, and leaned forward, and I noticed that every one of his facial hairs was an exclamation point. The dot on each one hovered slightly away from the tip of each hair, creating a sort of shimmering effect as he moved. His eyes were two, coal black periods. 

"I knowzzzzz why yrrrrr herrrrrrrrrrrre boyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy..........There;s only one reason any1 comez here.!.!.!"

He reached into his cloak and pulled forth a red pen. Seeing it was almost too much, and I nearly snatched it from his hand.

"nowww,,,,,, are you SURE......SURE......sure...this is what you want?"

I knew that it wasn't what I wanted. It was what I needed. I nodded, and reached my hand out. He laughed a wicked laugh, but his eyes wept tears.

"Open yur shirt boy..........."
I did what he told me, and he used the pen to carve a word into my chest. The blood and the red ink ran together and dripped down my stomach, and then my pants. I looked at the word he had scrawled but could make no sense of it: xPulver


He handed me the red pen, and as my hand clasped it I could feel a spawm of pain spreading from my fingers and up my arm. I tried to open my hand but the muscles were locked into place. The King and the wretch began to laugh, and were soon joined by the revelers in the court, until a chorus of laughter drowned out all other sound. The pain spread and I was rooted in place, losing conscious as my body could no longer handle all of the stress. The last thing I saw were the moons, ugly and broken in the sky.


I awoke to pain. My head hammered, my mouth was dry, and my chest burned as if it were scratched although there appeared to be no wounds present. Everything was as I left it: the mattress on the floor, the candles I used for light, the remnants of the supplies I bought from the woman. There were no scars on my chest, no red pen brought into my world. But there was something. A stain of red ink, smeared on my right hand.

For Joe, A true friend and mentor

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Trouble in Lovecraft Land - We're All Better Than This

Firstly, I apologize for the lack of updates to the blog. I've been keeping busy with fiction editing for Strange Aeons magazine, as well as writing reviews for the next issue and starting a new column of booze/cigar/book pairings. I've also been reviewing books and discussing news of The Weird on The Outer Dark podcast.

The weird fiction community means a lot to me. I started to become involved back in 2012 when I started the blog, but it wasn't until NecronomiCon 2013 that I met everyone. I couldn't have imagined a warmer welcome, and since then I've come to regard many of my colleagues as good friends.

Since then, there's been many petty feuds and disagreements. The boat is rocked sometimes, but things usually right themselves fairly quickly. In the past several months tensions have been on the rise, and due to political differences many find themselves taking a side, or doing their best to stay out of it while shaking their heads at how absurd it's all become. Science Fiction had the Sad Puppies to deal with, but that fiasco managed to infect genre as a whole. Robert Price made a speech at NecronomiCon 2015 which likened the Middle East to Lovecraft's Red Hook, and this moment was when lines begin to solidify.

The most recent issue was the decision to change the World Fantasy Award from a bust of Lovecraft to something more neutral. While many argued on either side, it's an issue that should have been dropped weeks ago, yet instead it continues to grow and become one of the biggest problems the community has faced.

ST Joshi has always been a very well respected member in the field, and the most well-known and productive scholar of HP Lovecraft. He is, understandably when one looks at his life's work, not happy about the change of the WFA. Here is a man who by all rights knows Lovecraft more than anyone. His initial protest was just that, one man making a statement against a change he couldn't stomach. If he wants to return his WFAs then so be it, that's his business. But it doesn't end there.

Joshi, and others, have been making increasingly uglier posts about the situation. It seems there are several people, including but not limited to Joshi, who feel that removing the Lovecraft bust is the first step in removing Lovecraft from everything. And this is where things get out of hand, and some people need to step back, calm down, and look at things like the intelligent adults we all know they are. Lovecraft's legacy is not going anywhere. Most of the people who were for the change don't want Lovecraft erased at all!

Changing the statue and being a fan of Lovecraft are not mutually exclusive. I think the change was a good idea. The award itself has moved away from what it started as, and it was never called the HP Lovecraft Award. In actuality, I had no strong feelings either way in the beginning, the award holders have every right to decide how their award appears, but after hearing arguments it is for the best that the award changes.

With that being said, I love Lovecraft. My blog takes its name from his work, as an homage to the author responsible for bringing me into the world of weird fiction in the first place. I have a house full of Lovecraftiana, be it artwork (those Liv Rainey-Smith woodcuts though!) or sculptures (my toddler nephews love looking at McKittrick and Broers takes on Cthulhu) or books. My League of Legends username is Señor Cthulhu (add me if you want, but I'm terrible). My friends have spent hours drinking booze and playing Arkham Horror. My students draw me pictures of Cthulhu. You get the picture.

So there. I'm a huge fan of Lovecraft, and I'm all for the award changing. It's that simple. Joshi and friends are smart enough that they should be able to understand that the award change does not mean that Lovecraft's influence is trying to be denied or pushed aside or covered up. There is no reason for the ugliness we are now all experiencing.

In the past week I have seen Joshi's wife telling a poet that he must not want to work with any publisher affiliated with Joshi because he posted that he disagreed with Joshi's wording on the issue. This poet was on Joshi's side in regards to the statue changing. If that's not pure insanity, I don't know what is. In the latest blog post, Joshi went after many authors and editors including Ellen Datlow, the genre's greatest editor, and Jeff Vandermeer, one of the most important voices of the the weird working today. The vitriol being spat out questions Datlow's integrity for being pro-change yet editing Lovecraftian anthologies, and accusing Vandermeer of "[...] failing to grasp the immensely complex social, political, cultural, and historical factors surrounding this entire issue." Datlow and Vandermeer have been the most inclusive editors out there. Datlow is one of the most well-read, intelligent, and kind editors working in the field. To question her morality is so ridiculously insulting it actually made my jaw drop to read it. Vandermeer has made it a mission to show readers the truer, broader horizons of weird fiction. He doesn't dismiss Lovecraft, but makes it clear that Lovecraft is a small part of the entirety of the weird. His anthology The Weird showcases this perfectly. Joshi goes on to say that all of these authors and editors will be forgotten while Lovecraft's legacy will remain, a petty and gross thing to say, taking the issue of the statue change to a very personal level.

And the situation is not limited to Joshi. Associates are now circling wagons. Some publishers are now deciding not to publish people for being on one side of the issue. The "Old Guard" and the "New Blood" seem to be truly at odds for the first time, and it's really not pretty at all.

I know most of this post comes across as anti-Joshi, and while it's true that I feel he is acting really out of hand and taking this issue much further than it needs to be, sinking to the depths of foot-stomping and making personal attacks, I don't want to use any of this as an attempt to make Joshi irrelevant. I don't take glee in the fact that his post makes him look terrible, and that it's in actuality hurting his cause even further. Some people are responding calmly, but not all, and it's just as ugly as his post.

No, I don't feel any of those things. Instead I feel a deep and profound sadness. I see a community full of wonderful people that seems ready to collapse on itself. I think ahead to the next convention, and I wonder, is it going to be so nastily divisive? Are guests going to refuse to be on panels with other guests? Are blowouts going to ensue, or are both sides going to ignore each other, lending the air a feeling of two separate and simultaneous cons inhabiting the same physical space but seeming light years apart? I don't want that.

One of the most appealing aspects of this community is the diversity. This includes the people whom I find myself disagreeing with on many levels. I don't want them ostracized, but I don't want them drawing lines either. It's my hope that the goodness of this community will shine through the current ugliness, and we will all be able to find whatever it is in ourselves to get along, or at least keep it civil, because that is the weird fiction community that I fell in love with.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Bastards of the Absolute by Adam S. Cantwell

I think it's appropriate to open this review with a look at the physicality of the book itself. Egaeus Press is consistently publishing some of the best looking hardcover books being put out today. The appearance and feel of the book is enough to get any jaded bibliophile to drool.

Now, even though the book as a physical object is gorgeous, the most importantaspect is the quality of the writing between the covers. Thankfully, this book delivers.

Adam S. Cantwell is a British author, and part of what I'll for now call a "European strange literature" movement. Certain things that come to mind when talking about this subset of weird literature: Old World Europe, dense prose, intellectual narrators, decadence, surrealism. Many of these authors have their work published as beautiful, limited hardcovers from publishers such as Passport Levant, Ex Occidente, Side Real Press and now Egaeus Press.

Several of the stories in this collection have appeared in limited tribute anthologies to Bruno Schulz, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Hanns Heinz Ewers, or as very limited Passport Levant editions, so it's great to see them all collected in a beautiful, yet affordable edition.

Some of my favorites:

The Face in The Wall is a story about a man who is imprisoned inside a city wall. His entire body is in in the wall, with only his face exposed. He spends ages in the wall, watching the changes of the city, and coping with ill treatment from citizens of the city. A clever blend of fantasy and horror, it's great story to open the collection with.

Next up is The Filature, a story in tribute to Hanns Heinz Ewers. As punishment, a German man's employers send him to a Chinese silk factory. The story reads as his journal, and we see the man repeat many of the same mistakes that brought about his corporate exile in the first place. Some truly creepy moments in this one.

Music is an important aspect of several stories in the collection. Three of which (Moonpaths of the Departed, The Kuutar Concerto, and Symphony of Sirens) first appeared collected together as A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night by Ex Occidente. Another, Beyond the Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem, first appeared in The First Book of Classical Horror Stories edited by D.F. Lewis. I loved the shared themes of these stories, and how they managed to all use music differently. Several (all?) feature real life composers. My favorite of the four may be The Kuutar Concerto,  which features Sibelius having a drunken night out in seedy bars after an incident at one of his concerts. He runs into someone who knows him from the past, and the drunken revelry spirals into the realms of the otherwordly.

Only For The Crossed-Out is Cantwell's Bulgakov tribute, and is a wonderfully absurd story. A clerk of sorts works in an archive of books where they cross-out and censor books.Things take a turn for the interesting when our protagonist falls down a chute and becomes trapped in a basement mass-grave of books.

The collection ends with Orphans on Granite Tides, originally released as a stand alone by Ex Occidente. Billed as a "Metaphysical Grotesque," this tale follows a German man who finds rare books and manuscripts as his occupation, although this job of his has become his life. This serves as a frame story for a peculiar document he finds. The document claims to be a sort of memoir by a well traveled Native American, who has metaphysical experiences and sees the world within our own world. A difficult piece, but one that shines for it.

This book was my first experience with Adam S. Cantwell's fiction, and shan't be the last. His fiction is tantalizingly mystifying, and brings readers to a magical, Old World Europe that is equal parts horrifying and beautiful.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Necronomicon 2015: We Are Providence

I've been terribly slacking when it comes to blog posts. Between my day job, other work I'm doing in the weird fiction field, reviews appearing elsewhere, and sometimes going through periods where I don't read nearly as much as I should, I've just not been giving this blog the attention it deserves. I hope to remedy this, and I have a few reviews lined up that I have to type and post, but first I wanted to take the time to do a post about NecronomiCon Providence, which was held this past weekend.

I actually wasn't planning on doing a write-up on the con this go around, even though it came up earlier in the weekend when The joey Zone told me he enjoyed my blog post about the 2013 con. That was my first con, and it was special in many ways. It truly changed my life.

On Sunday, the final day of the con, I went to see friends in the vendor's room after participating on The Future of Weird Fiction Panel (more on that later). I picked up the Dim Shores chapbooks I pre-ordered, and was planning on buying an original Cthulhu art piece from Dave Felton. I first met Dave at the 2013 con. One afternoon we were both in the Haven Brother's food truck, and recognizing we were both attending the same con, struck up a conversation. Dave was familiar with The Arkham Digest, and we had a nice chat.

So here, the final day of NecronomiCon 2015, I found myself hanging out with Dave in the vendor's room. He gifted me the Cthulhu piece, and told me about reading my write-up of the last NecronomiCon, and some follow up Facebook posts by myself and others. He commented on seeing me say somewhere about how it changed my life, and that he realized the first con changed his life too. He remember how Jeffrey Thomas remarked on Facebook that it felt like the con was still going on via Facebook, which in a way it really was. Excitement was running high for everyone, and it seemed that none of us really wanted to let go of what was truly a magical weekend.

Dave Felton is amazing.

After we parted, I headed downstairs for lunch before grabbing a train home. As I sat on the train I thought about the weekend, and quite a bit about the conversation Dave and I had a few hours earlier, and I came to the conclusion that writing about this year's con was something I should take the time to do.

I remember quite clearly the mix of emotions I had going to the first NecronomiCon. The Digest wasn't even a year old, and despite having made friends and acquaintances online, this would be the first time I would meet many of them. Excitement and nervousness both boiled so high I could no longer tell one from the other. Would I just see them on panels? Would we get to talk much? Would it be awkward? Would they be polite but not really want me bugging them?

My fears turned out to be unfounded, and I felt as if I had come home, so to speak. These were my people.

A lot has happened in the last two years. I've attended a few more cons (the wonderful HP Lovecraft Film Festival Portland, Cthulhucon Portland, Readercon). I edited an anthology that was published. I started to become a guest at the cons I attended. I've been on panels. I've had a story published, another one taken for con-exclusive round robin. Reviews and interviews by me are appearing in other places. My anthology was nominated for an award. In two years I went from being a fan who wrote reviews, to an active participant in the field that I love. It's been, simply, a wild two years.

Future of Weird Fiction Panel. L to R: moderator SJ Bagley, Simon Strantzas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, myself, Mike Griffin, Joe Pulver

Even though I take pride in each accomplishment, everything I've done so far pales in comparison to the best thing that has come from all of this: the friendships. I've been lucky to fall in with some truly wonderful people, some of whom I talk to almost daily. And this is why cons are so special. Some people go for the gaming. Some to see some cool, hard to find films, or hear their favorite authors read. Some go to watch some interesting panels. And sure, all of that stuff is fun, but that's not why I go anymore. I go to see my friends. Social media is a great way to keep in touch, yeah, but isn't even comparable to being able to sit around a restaurant table enjoying good food, good drinks, and fine conversation with friends you too rarely get to spend time with. I'm sure I'm far from alone with this sentiment.

NecronomiCon is cementing itself as the premiere weird fiction convention. As sad as I am that it doesn't occur ever year, I think having it every other year actually works best. Neils Hobbs and crew should be commended for doing such an excellent job.

I arrived late Thursday night. My flight out of Philly was cancelled at the last second but I managed to catch a train just in time. It was a stressful day, but I finally made it, just in time for the witching hour. As I walked towards the hotel from the train station, I saw a group of people on the edge of the small park across from the hotel front, directly in my path. As I moved closer, they began to take on more familiar shapes, and I realized that it was several of my friends. Running into them upon arrival couldn't have been a better welcome in Providence.

A beacon in the dark...

Although I missed out on the Thursday night shenanigans, I managed to see several readings and panels over the course of the weekend. I caught most of the Ramsey Campbell interview, and all of the New Weird panel. I attended readings by Mike Griffin, Pete Rawlik, David Neilsen, Scott Thomas, Richard Gavin, Tom Lynch, Simon Strantzas, Jeffrey Thomas, and caught the end of Michael Cisco reading during the Aickman's Heirs book launch. I also attended, and was called upon to get up and introduce the authors, readings by Scott Nicolay, Anya Martin, and Joe Pulver. My weekend also ended with a bang when I was invited by moderator SJ Bagley to take an absent Laird Barron's spot on The Future of the Weird panel. Other panel members included Simon Strantzas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mike Griffin, and Joe Pulver, and was quite a bit of fun. Scott Nicolay recorded the panel for his podcast, The Outer Dark, and I know there is some video footage out there as well.

While not attending panels or readings, I was apt to be found in the vendor's area, the hotel bar, a restaurant, or somewhere else among friends. Along with all my old friends, there were many other online friends I was able to hang out with the for the first time, including but not limited to: Heidi Ash, Scott Dwyer, Matthew Warren Richey, Michael Wehunt, Damien Walters, Barry Lee Dejasu, Rick Lai, Scott Jones, Christopher Patrick Burke, Michael Bukowski, Todd Chicione (we met so briefly last time), Ian Welke (we hardly saw each other! Definitely a drink next time!).

The weekend was just as magical as it was two years ago, and I hope that this con continues for a long time.

L to R: Lena Griffin, Erin Laroue, Nathan Carson, Ross E. Lockhart, Scott Dwyer, Heidi Ash, myself, Tom Lynch

A final story, to end the post.

In 2013, when I first arrived, I dropped my bags off in my room at the Biltmore and then went down to the hotel bar for dinner. A man staying in a neighboring hotel (The Omni or Hotel Providence I believe) wandered in and took the seat next to me. We exchanged pleasantries and names, realized we were both there to attend the same con, so had a conversation over beers and dinner. I realized then that there was probably nothing to be nervous about. I was attending a convention with a bunch of other kindred spirits, and would be in good company. After we parted, I entered the lobby and ran into the group of people who would become some very important people in my life. For the rest of the weekend, the man I dined with and I didn't cross paths.

As the Future of Weird Fiction panel wound down, several people approached the stage to talk with the various panelists. Some wanted to remark on something we said they heartily agreed with, or thought profound, one lady told me she was happy I mentioned video games since she was a game designer. A few people came bringing books for the panelists to sign. But one stood out in particular. It was the man who I shared a meal with when I first arrived in Providence two years ago, and now our paths finally crossed again, two years and a convention later. He was with his wife (or girlfriend? I'm not sure.) who had some questions, and he recognized me from before, and thought it was very cool that I was now on panels.

Afterwards, while I sat on the train, I thought about running into this man. I thought about my friends I was leaving. I thought about what Dave Felton said to me. And I realized: cons are more than meet and greets, and more than panels and vendors and fancy costume balls. Cons are about friendships and coming together. They change lives.

Weird fiction fans and Lovecraftians are often considered a fringe society. We are often outsiders, spread thin. But on weekends like this, it all changes. We all make the pilgrimage. Introverts become temporarily extroverted, and we all share an experience that is totally different yet the same for all of us. We realize that we aren't outsiders at all, we are a family. We are Providence.

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.