Monday, August 19, 2013

My Interview at DARKER Magazine

Russian horror webzine Darker recently contacted me for an interview. They were kind enough to dub me a "connoisseur of literary horror". The interview on their page is in Russian, but they were kind enough to allow me to post the interview in English on my blog in case any of my readers are interested.

The original interview, in Russian, can be found HERE.

Over the years of Darkness and DARKER we conducted dozens of interviews with writers, editors, producers, musicians and artists, but there is another category of people that we (and hopefully you) find interesting - it's our foreign colleagues: bloggers, editors and journalists fanzines. Yevgeny Mikhailov spoke on behalf of the magazine with Justin Steele - a connoisseur of literary horror, the owner of the site The Arkham Digest , devoted to horror and "weird fiction"The conversation, as can be seen, is detailed and informative.

Mr. Steele, we are glad to greet you on behalf of all your Russian-speaking fans. Here are the best questions we have gathered.

Thank you for interviewing me. I am truly flattered!

How did you get to like horror fiction? Why does horror draw your attention? Where did the idea for The Arkham Digest come from?

I always grew up as a fan of horror. When I was a kid, I would watch horror films with my father, who love Stephen King novels and monster movies. He had a coworker who was a great horror film enthusiast, and as I grew up he would give our family copies of horror films. He started with the classic Universal monster movies, and as the years went by the movies he would send would contain more mature content. As for fiction, I was always an avid reader, even as a child. When I was really young I remember reading horror fiction aimed towards youngsters such as the Goosebumps series as well as books about true hauntings that I found in the library. As fun as some of these books were, the horror books that most stand out from this period of my life are the three volumes of the Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark trilogy. Alvin Schwartz collected various pieces of folklore, urban legends, and even some old fiction stories, and adapted them into really short stories for children. Some were funny, some were scary, and all were morbid and macabre. What truly made the books stand out were the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Looking at them now, it's easy to say that these illustrations are frightening to adults. As a child, they were the stuff of nightmares. After that I mostly read literature and fantasy, until college. One evening I discovered Lovecraft and nothing's ever been the same.

The Arkham Digest came about after a few years of reading review blogs and thinking that I would like to have one of my own. There are so many blogs focusing on fantasy and science fiction and even less on horror. Taking it a step further, there are hardly any which focus on weird fiction. I've always loved reading, and I love talking about books after finishing them, so naturally I thought a blog would be a good outlet. The last thing I came up with was the name, which was actually a suggestion of a friend. I knew I wanted Arkham in the title, and he suggested Digest. I thought it had a nice ring to it.

Do you have a favorite definition of horror fiction? Is it about scaring (and, occasionally, nauseating) people, or maintaining an eerie sense of wrongness, or something more complex?

I always saw horror as a broad term, and I feel that all of what you say can apply. For me though, a work of fiction is considered horror if it hits me on a primal level, be it a nauseating shock or just a sense of wrongness. I find the latter preferable.

Where do you think the line between the weird fiction and horror is? Do you see a difference between them and even if so, is the difference important?

I think “weird fiction” usually falls under the umbrella term of horror. To me, weird fiction has always been fiction that crosses the boundaries of genres. For example, take a look at Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. Is it science fiction? Is it horror? It has elements of both, and I think that's one of the things that has always distinguished weird fiction from more general forms of horror, that ability to break conventions. Weird fiction is concerned with the indefinable, and for me it stands out compared to more typical horror tropes such as ghosts, vampires and zombies.

It is noticeable that you prefer authors as Ramsey Campbell, Richard Gavin, Thomas Ligotti, John Langan and others writers of quiet horror. They all hardly belong to mainstream horror, and some readers, younger ones in particular, tend to complain that these writers are somewhat boring, their texts being ponderous, sluggish and, more often than not, unintelligible. Too weird, in brief. :) Why did you fall for them in the first place?

I think this quote by Stephen King sums up my feelings about this quiet type of horror:

The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”

I think these authors, and many others I enjoy, excel at capturing this feeling of terror and dread. Oftentimes I feel that the subtle and unexplained is what stays with me the longest after reading. The slasher might give me some moment to moment suspense, but the suspense fades quickly after reading. The more quiet stories that hint at more awfulness than they portray are the stories that keep me awake at night thinking about them.

Everyone has an idea of what they think lovecraftian fiction is. What it means for you? Why do you think that Lovecraftian literature is so popular today?

For me, the best Lovecraftian fiction transcends pastiche and works instead with the themes that made his fiction great. Especially his themes of cosmic horror, forbidden knowledge, madness, and an indefinable otherness. This cosmic horror is about what's beyond the veil of reality, and it's usually not pleasant.

Over the years it seems that Lovecraft's influence has just continued to grow and grow. I think some are initially drawn to it looking for something different. After so many vampire and zombie stories readers may want to experience a different kind of horror. It also helps that Lovecraft's influence is seen in many popular horror films and novels. Stephen King cited him as a great influence, and as the best-selling horror author of our time his word would help bring new readers in. And looking at film, some of the best horror film contain Lovecraftian elements. Alien, John Carpenter's The ThingEvil Dead...the list goes on and on.
Do you have an example of something you would consider a quintessential weird and horror story?

Choosing just one example is rather difficult, so I'll go with a tale that captures the Lovecraftian brand of weirdness while standing on it's own as a great example of the genre. The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti does a great job of capturing Lovecraft's sense of dread. Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has said that this is the best non-Lovecraft Mythos story.

Can you name your top five modern horror novels and why?

I've always felt strongly that horror shines in the short form, be it short story or novella. These shorter pieces are more concentrated, whereas the novel length horror work has many pitfalls it must avoid in order to be successful. Not to say there are not good horror novels out there, but for every good horror novel I can name fifty good horror stories easily. Because of this, I'm going to deviate a little in my answers and include short story collections as well.

The Croning by Laird Barron is an example of weird cosmic horror at the novel length which is excellent. I'm a huge fan of Barron's work, and The Croning ties together several of his short pieces into his very own mythos. I would also recommend Barron's short fiction collections as they are all brilliant, and to appreciate the novel even further one should read the connected short stories.

At Fear's Altar is Richard Gavin's fourth collection, and I would say that it's his best work to date. Gavin's writing often seems that he is channeling some greater power. He truly understands weird horror, and this collection proves that he is a modern master.

Mark Samuels is a British author who excels at capturing that classic weird tale feel. His first collection, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales is a must-have for weird fiction fans. Samuels blends classic weird fiction with Ligottianism for some truly enjoyable stories.

Joel Lane's novella The Witnesses Are Gone, concerns a man searching for hard to find works of a mysterious director. It's dark, creepy as hell, and may be Lane's best work yet.

Other recent novel length works I have enjoyed both come from British authors. Adam Nevill's The Ritual and Last Days were both great fun. Gary McMahon's The Concrete Grove was also a great horror novel, and is the first of a trilogy. I've heard great things about the other two, but have only read the first one myself, and would highly recommend it.

Is there a social mission peculiar to horror fiction? Can a horror novel turn into something more than entertainment?

I think many horror authors use the genre as a way to explore their own fears through fiction, and likewise many readers see it as a safe way to explore their anxieties and fears. I think works of horror can absolutely become something more than entertainment. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a horrific novel, yet it also touches on beautiful themes such as hope, and the love between a father and son. Nobody walks away from that book without being changed somewhat.
What do U.S. publishers think of the genre these days? What trends are you seeing in horror fiction today?
It seems that horror fiction is still a niche market. It is mostly ruled by the small press, although some of the big publishers occasionally put out some horror fiction. I'm surprised horror fiction isn't bigger, considering how popular horror films are.
When it comes to trends I think sometimes it's good to look at horror films and see what's popular. There has been a recent surge of zombie fiction, which goes hand-in-hand with the surge in zombie film and TV (The Walking Dead). Weird fiction seems to be in a Golden Age currently. Lovecraft's works are more popular than ever, and there are many excellent writers working in the genre today.

What do you think of e-books? Is there a place for horror fiction in electronic publishing? Do you have a Kindle?

I absolutely think there is a place for horror fiction in the realm of e-publishing. It is especially apparent with publishers like DarkFuse, whose main catalog is only offered in e-book format. I think this allows for a good business model, publishing novellas at a very affordable price, as well as offering subscription plans. With that being said, I personally don't care for reading books in the electronic format. I vastly prefer hard copies, so therefore I don't own a Kindle or Nook.
Right now Undertow Publications is seeking to raise money to fund the start of a new anthology, Year's Best Weird Fiction. Do you think crowdfunding is going to become more of the norm when it comes to publication of weird and horror fiction?

Crowdfunding sure has become popular, and I see it especially with indie video games and movies. I honestly haven't seen too much of it for works of fiction yet, besides the above mentioned title and an Ellen Datlow anthology. I think there are definitely benefits for small publishers, as they can gauge interest through their campaigns. I don't think it will become the norm however, I can't see weird and horror fans buying all their books by pre-ordering through Kickstarter and IndieGogo campaigns.
How would you explain your readers choice of a genre to a layman?

Weird fiction was a term that came about before genre conventions. Lovecraft defined weird fiction as supernatural stories that differ from the common ghost or Gothic story. Weird tales concern themselves with the indefinable. 
Do you ever write weird or horror stories?

A few years ago I wrote a few really short pieces, but nothing good enough to share with anyone. Other than that I haven't really attempted any fiction writing of my own.
Has anything supernatural or weird ever happened to you?

I can't really think of any interesting supernatural events occurring directly with me, but I do have an amusing anecdote I'll share. When I was in first or second grade, my great-grandmother was still alive. She always used to tell us kid's creepy stories, some of which I encountered later as pieces of folklore or “true” ghost stories from around the world. She was in her early 90's, and lived alone in a two story house. Because of her age, for the last few years she only used the downstairs of her home. One day my uncle Mike was at her house, and was going to put something in her attic, and he found a silky black scarf on the floor upstairs. He made a joke about it, but my great-grandmother didn't find it funny. She swore that it belonged to a witch, and that if he touches it then something bad will happen to him. Of course he laughed it off and went and took it away. That night he woke up with severe pain and had to go to the hospital. It was kidney stones or something with the gall bladder. I still remember wondering why a witch hated my great-grandmother and was coming to her house to creep around upstairs and leave booby-trapped scarves lying around. I guess I will never know. 
What are Justin Steele`s hobbies and interests apart from horror?

I love fiction in general, so I'm always reading something even if it isn't horror. I've also always been a rabid film and music fan. When I'm not at home reading I'm usually working, out with friends, or playing with my two little dogs. I also love board games (Arkham Horror!) and video games (PC).
And in conclusion, something encouraging for Russian horror and weird fans.

Russian, American, British, French, whatever... we are all united as horror fans, which transcends our nationality. We all bring our own unique worldviews to the genre, which makes for many interesting ideas and interpretations. Keep reading friends!

Thank you once again for having me! It was a delight!

1 comment:

  1. "quiet stories that hint at more awfulness than they portray"

    Nice. Congratulations! Great interview.