Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Interview: Daniel Mills

Last week I posted a very positive review about Revenants, the first novel by author Daniel Mills. I had many good things to say, and the writer who first captured my attention with impressive short stories I read in various anthologies went on to further gain my respect. Daniel himself has also proven to be quite friendly, and has agreed to an interview in which he discusses some of his inspirations for becoming a writer, his own weird favorites, and which of his work will see print in 2013.

JS: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? What were the major driving forces behind that decision?
DM: The short answer? High school.

In my younger teens, I wrote a string of terrible science fiction and fantasy stories largely inspired by Lovecraft, Le Guin, and Robert Jordan’s
Wheel of Time series. These were written largely to amuse myself, as I recall, and otherwise stave off the boredom of summer vacation, and it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I stumbled, unwittingly, into my vocation.
In addition to my love of fantasy and science fiction, I had long nurtured an interest in Japanese history and culture, which prompted me to pick up Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle shortly after my sixteenth birthday. Murakami’s style was unlike anything I had encountered before and I eagerly sought out his other novels, all of which impacted me emotionally in ways I had scarcely imagined possible. Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of the World, in particular, struck me as a masterpiece.
If I had read something like The Wheel of Time to "escape" from your typical high school angst into a world of strange and beautiful possibility, then reading Murakami awakened me to the same possibilities as they existed in my own life and in the world around me. It was around this time that I began to write what I thought of as my first “serious” stories, eventually producing a string of some two- or three-dozen Murakami rip-offs during the next year.

Pretty dreadful stuff, really, and it was only later, in my senior year of high school, that I discovered authors like Yasunari Kawabata, Juan Rulfo, Herman Hesse, and Breece D’J Pancake--writers who inspired me not only
to write but to write well and to find my own voice.

JS: All of your fiction that I've read so far has been historical in context. Period pieces if you will. What is it about previous time periods that appeal to you as settings for your stories?

DM: For me, I suppose, the appeal is largely twofold.

Firstly, I read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. I adore the antiquated diction: those long, slowly unraveling sentences that turn and meander and almost seem to hesitate before going for the throat. Writing period pieces like “Dust from a Dark Flower,” set in the late Eighteenth Century, allows me to indulge my love of baroque language without appearing hopelessly anachronistic.

Secondly, I was brought up from an early age to appreciate the strangeness and complexity of our country’s history. To use one example, my ancestors were British loyalists who fought on the losing side of the Revolutionary War and fled to Canada before returning to the US decades later. My own family spent much of my early childhood traveling to Rev. War reenactments in New York and Northern New England, where we played the roles of British soldiers and camp followers. Naturally enough, I came to see the Rev. War as something rather different from the “struggle for freedom” we hear so much about. And yet it is this mythology that persists -- “print the legend” and so forth.

Setting my work in the past affords me the opportunity to engage directly with these cultural legends (for example, the myths surrounding our nation's founding) while working -- as Lovecraft did -- to invent a mythology of my own. 

JS: From your writings I can only assume that you're a fan of Lovecraft, and other weird fiction. What Lovecraft stories do you consider to be stand-outs, or that are personal favorites of yours? What about other classic writers of the weird?

DM: Indeed, I’m afraid I’m something of a shameless fan-boy where Lovecraft is concerned. While I am, of course, aware of his shortcomings -- his early work, in particular, is terribly inconsistent and colored by his racial attitudes -- I have been reading his stories since I was fourteen and regularly reread his entire body of work every few years.

"The Rats in the Walls" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are perennial favorites of mine as are early tales "The White Ship," “Nyarlathotep," and "The Music of Erich Zann." I also have to mention "The Picture in the House," the opening paragraphs of which present a remarkably succinct summary of New England's dark history while capturing something of the region’s enduring appeal:

“But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteem most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”

Among other classic authors of ghost stories and the weird, I am especially fond of the work of British authors Robert Aickman, EF Benson, MR James, JS Le Fanu, Oliver Onions, and William Hope Hodgson -- and it would be remiss of me not to mention American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert W Chambers, author of The King in Yellow.
I could talk at great -- one might even say "excruciating" -- length concerning any and all of the authors above, but I will limit myself to recommending, unreservedly, the work of Robert Aickman to any who have not experienced it. Simply put, there has never been a finer practitioner of the weird tale. 

JS: Out of all the stories you have written, do you have any that you are especially fond of, or one's that have special meaning to yourself?

DM: Among my short fiction published to date, I am perhaps most fond of "The Hollow," which appeared last year in Phantasmagorium #4, and of "The Wayside Voices," which was published in Issue #30 of Black Static magazine. Both stories contain some of my favorite writing to date, striking a balance between the lyrical sparseness of the prose in Revenants and the antiquated stylings of stories like "The Photographer's Tale" or "The Naked Goddess." 

JS: Do you have any moments early in your life that influenced your love for horror and the weird?

DM: I don’t know that I can pinpoint the precise moment my interest in horror fiction began. Looking back, it seems as though it has always been with me.

God knows I was a nervous enough child. I remember hiding behind the couch while my father watched The Thing, freaking myself out by reading Schwartz & Gammel’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or just lying awake in terror after stumbling on the so-called Diary of Jack the Ripper (complete with black-and-white crime scene photographs) in an otherwise innocent stack of library books. For years, as I recall, I didn't dare to go downstairs at night but waited until my mother switched on the lights before venturing from my bedroom.

When I was six, we were forced to put down one of our dogs. We buried him in the woods and marked the site with a wooden cross made from two-by-fours. At night, our surviving dog, who was rapidly losing his eyesight, would stumble about the ground floor of the house, bumping into furniture. Being nervous and impressionable, I was quick to ascribe these noises to th
e spirit of our first dog, returned from the grave to trouble the living. In the mornings, before school, I used to go outside to make sure that the grave-site remained undisturbed: the cross still upright, the dog still buried.

None of this is terribly remarkable, I know, but I think such small incidents as these served to instill in me a kind of belief in the darkly numinous, if you will, the existence of things unseen -- what Richard Gavin dubs "The Eldritch Faith" in his brilliant novella of the same name.

JS: When it comes to modern horror/weird fiction, do you have any current favorites (authors, stories, books) in the field that you would dub essential?

DM: To my mind, Richard Gavin's 2012 collection At Fear’s Altar marks the most recent addition to the evolving canon. His novella The Eldritch Faith, mentioned above, signifies the fullest realization of Gavin's considerable talents to date, exceeding even those high standards set by the preceding tales, which range in tone from the truly horrifying "King Him" to the slow-burn creepiness of "A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress."

Other essential volumes of recent years would include Simon Strantzas' second collection Cold to the Touch from 2009, which contains numerous small masterpieces such as "The Sweetest Song" and "Pinholes in Black Muslin," as well as Reggie Oliver's The Dracula Papers, Vol I from 2011, an epic picaresque of a novel that somehow manages to contain elements of Gothic horror, cosmic dread, and pure adventure (for lack of a better term) in prose that is by turns poetic and witty, beautiful and hilarious.

Two other volumes I'll mention are Mark Samuels' collection The White Hands from 2004 and Quentin S Crisp's Morbid Tales from 2005, both published by Tartarus Press. There is much talk nowadays of a “Golden Age” of weird fiction and these volumes by Samuels and Crisp were some of the earliest to earn such superlatives. Morbid Tales opens with the novella The Mermaid, which serves as a perfect introduction to Crisp's diverse and heavily stylized body of work, while Samuels’ The White Hands contains a number of classic tales, including the title story, "The Grandmaster's Final Game," and "Apartment 205."

JS: What do you hope to accomplish with your fiction?

DM: I believe I've already mentioned the ineffable, the numinous: that wordless “other” reality that exists outside of our world and also within it, that reveals itself to us in the briefest of glimpses. Such moments of revelation can be experienced through poetry or nature, music or relationships, the rigors of religious practice.

We’ve all experienced such a moment, I think, whatever name we may have used at the time to describe it. As for me, I’ve always sought -- and found -- that kind of revelation by reading, whether that was my first experience of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when I was sixteen or my recent reading of The Eldritch Faith at age twenty-seven.

Really, I suppose that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my own work: to create a kind of beautiful framework using language and imagery, a window through which the reader might obtain a vision, however brief, of the transcendent -- a world “Larger Than One’s Self” as Aickman has it.

JS: Do you have any advice for unpublished writers out there?

DM: Oh, that one’s easy: read. Read as much and as widely as you can and also be sure to familiarize yourself with the genre you hope to work in. Seek out journals, anthologies, single author collections. Explore the catalog and aesthetics of the various publishers out there. Not only will you come to understand the particular tastes of many editors -- essential if you're submitting your own work -- but you will have an excuse (as if one were really needed) to read and experience some truly magnificent work. What is more, by familiarizing yourself with the current scene, you will obtain some idea of where and how, exactly, your own vision might fit in with those of contemporaries. This in turn will make it far easier for your work to find a receptive editor and eventually an audience.

With the advent of Web 2.0 and the ubiquity of social networking it is now easier than ever to seek out and acquire small press work from all around the world. Social media also provides an unprecedented forum in which to connect with other readers and writers in your chosen field, nearly all of whom
you will find to be gracious, kind, and approachable. Writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s true, but I think you’ll find that it’s equally important and rewarding to reach out to your peers. You’re almost certain to find a sense of connection there, even a kind of kinship. I know I did.

JS: The last couple years seem to have been quite successful for you as an author. Several stories have seen publication along with your first novel. Anything you can tell us about current/future projects?

DM: 2013 will see the release of three anthologies in which I’m honored to have stories. The first of these, The Grimscribe’s Puppets (ed. Joseph S. Pulver, Sr), presents a series of short tales in tribute to the great American horror writer Thomas Ligotti, including my own short story, entitled “The Lord Came at Twilight.”

Ligotti’s now-classic tale “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land” will be reprinted this summer in the upcoming anthology Mighty in Sorrow (ed. Jordan Krall), a collection of stories in tribute to the music of Current 93, in which my short story “Whistler’s Gore” -- a tale told almost entirely in epitaphs -- will see publication.

Finally, I would like to mention the anthology Shadows Edge from Gray Friar Press, which is being edited by Canadian author Simon Strantzas (author of Cold to the Touch, mentioned above) and will contain my short story “The Falling Dark.”

Also keep an eye out for new work in upcoming issues of Supernatural Tales and Shadows & Tall Trees. My contribution to the latter -- entitled “The Other Boy” -- draws extensively on my own childhood experience of Revolutionary War reenacting, thus making it one of my most “personal” pieces to date.

JS: Thanks once again for taking the time to answer some questions. I look forward to following your career!

DM: Thank you, Justin. A pleasure speaking with you.

A great interview. More about Daniel Mills can be found on his blog: HERE.

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