Thursday, January 30, 2014

True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto on Ligotti

As an encore to my earlier interview with the creator/write of HBO's True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto once again stops by The Arkham Digest to discuss the influence of Thomas Ligotti, which was something some readers felt was left out from the initial interview.

Some readers seem surprised that you didn't mention Ligotti as a direct influence on Cohle, and some were of the opinion you were simply being coy about it. Are you a reader of Ligotti? How influential has his writing been on not only Cohle, but on the series as a whole?

Nic: The work and vision of Thomas Ligotti was very influential for imagining Cohle's overall worldview. I've tried to avoid discussion of Cohle's philosophies because the truth is, the audience cannot yet see the totality of Cohle's character or the story being told. His relationship to the philosophies he espouses in the first three episodes don't encapsulate the entirety of his character. For instance, Cohle can't be a nihilist-- he cares too much; he's too passionate; he yearns too much (so, in his way, he deludes himself as much as Marty does). Who he ultimately is, is not yet clear. Right now, I hope its difficult to tell whose side the writer is on, and I think that's the way it should be. And this might be paranoid, but this early on in the run, I really didn't want people accusing us of pushing some antinatalist or nihilistic agenda: the show's true agenda, and its relationship to those philosophies, won't be clear until the 8th episode finishes. At which point, if anybody still cared, I was hoping to get to discuss these things.  Anyhow: there was a clear line to me from Chambers to Lovecraft to Ligotti, and their fictional visions of cosmic despair were articulating the same things as certain nihilist and pessimist philosophers, but with more poetry and art and vision. And then I found that this level of bleakness went arm-in-arm with the genre of noir, and that aspects of the weird fiction I loved could be used to puncture and punctuate aspects of the noir genre that I loved. I mean, what could be harder, more unforgivingly noir than Thomas Ligotti's vision of what the human race is? But I suppose I've been overly wary of having people define Cohle solely based on the philosophy he espouses in the first three episodes, because the truth is that the whole of his character and his journey is much more complex than that. Having said that, if this leads people to discover and explore Ligotti's work, then I'll be very happy. And for the record; I don't personally share those philosophies, but one of the reasons Ligotti is an important literary writer is because it's important for us to confront the potential of the true abyss, its possibility, and I can't really think of a contemporary writer who can define that abyss as well as Ligotti.

Art by Sergiy Krykun

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Lord Came at Twilight by Daniel Mills

I discovered Daniels Mills at the same time I started this blog. The very first book I reviewed, A Season in Carcosa, contained my introduction to the young author. "MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room" is an excellent spin on The King in Yellow, and marked Mills as an author worth watching. In the next year I would read Daniel's stories in several anthologies, always excited when I saw a table of contents announced including his name. I also read and reviewed his novel, Revenants, which is a great weird story of Puritans and the wilds of New England.

The Lord Came at Twilight is Daniel's first collection of short fiction, and includes fourteen stories: a dozen reprints and two originals. It was with great pleasure that I revisited the many stories that I have read previously in anthologies, and even greater pleasure to enjoy the stories I was as-of-yet unfamiliar with.

Dan's writing has a classicist bent, as he often prefers to tell his stories with a refined, more formal voice. In the hands of a lesser writer taking this path can be disastrous, but Mills crafts these tales with ease. Whether he is riffing on Lovecraft with "Whisperers" or taking readers to a mysterious plantation in the Civil War South in "House of the Caryatids," Dan is using a classic voice in a way that is all his own.

Some favorites from the collection include:

"The Hollow" - One of Dan's best stories to date, it follows an abandoned boy growing up around his abandoned village. The sense of loneliness and regret plague the young man.

"MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room" - I love a good King in Yellow story, and Mills delivers with this one. A strange trip to a mysterious brothel leads to nothing but trouble for the narrator, and the story makes quite a connection to the Gentleman of Providence.

"The Photographer's Tale" - A spooky tale with hints of a disturbing past. Mills keeps the hints subtle, making the tale all the more powerful.

"The Wayside Voices" - Told using multiple narrators, this one deals with an inn run by a crazed, violent innkeeper, and the ghosts that belong to the inn.

"The Naked Goddess" - I've always been a fan of horror stories that see a character finding himself/herself in a town which proves itself to be hostile, like the narrator Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Lord Came At Twilight" - A story building on Ligotti's "The Mystics of Muelenburg."

Daniel Mills has a poet's eye for beauty, and his literature evokes a sense of classic weird fiction. His love for his native New England goes hand in hand with his knack for conveying the strange and liminal. The stories within The Lord Came at Twilight are at home among the best weird tales from Machen, Blackwood and The Gentleman from Providence himself.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview: Nic Pizzolatto, creator/writer of HBO's True Detective

True Detective premiered January 12th on HBO, and two episodes into it's run it's already making waves. The show follows homicide detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle and Martin Hart (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, respectively) as they hunt for a killer in Louisiana. The narrative jumps back and forth between 1995, when both partners begin the case, and 2012 with the detectives being interviewed as the case is reopened. The eight episode season is a standalone story, and further benefits from having Cary Joji Fukunaga direct every episode. True Detective is an ultra-dark noir, and features several elements drawn from horror literature, most notably The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers.

Show creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto was good enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for The Arkham Digest below. Enjoy!!

It seems that some elements of True Detective draw influence from the realm of literary horror. I speak not only of the references to The King in Yellow, but also the stick-like creations reminiscent of Karl Edward Wagner's story “Sticks”, as well as Cohle's Ligottian worldview. What drew you to these elements, and how did you go about choosing to incorporate them into the show? 

Nic: Sure. That influence is, like everything in True Detective, part of a whole-earth catalog of cultural obsessions, including my own. If your character conveys a vision of cosmic horror, it felt appropriate for me to dramatize the Lovecraftian sense of madness, of a carnivorous universe in which you’re food. And Cohle’s attitude is similar to things Lovecraft said (and Cioran, and Schopenhauer), though we can see Cohle would have a substantial confirmation-bias based on his life story. 

The stick lattices are actually things I discovered in researching early Megalith cultures and the mound-builders in Louisiana, but I discovered Wagner’s story and then it seemed even more appropriate to the kind of subconscious cultural associations the killer creates, the atavistic dread that the show tries to transmit. I suppose what drew me to these elements were the show’s themes and characters, and my own interests, which to be fair are pretty broad and discursive. And no one told me I couldn’t do it, you know? If these things are all appropriate to the story and its themes and they can be incorporated organically and become an authentic part of the story, why not? Why not mash these influences together? Provided it’s in a way that doesn’t betray or lead astray the governing genre being served.

The landscape itself is a rather looming presence. What can you tell me about your choice of venue and what it means for the story?

Nic: The landscape is literally the third lead in the show. This is the area of the country where I grew up, and I knew the kinds of environments waiting for us there. Very detailed, prosaic descriptions of setting were a large part of the script: taking these opportunities to witness the contradictions of place and people, to feel a sense of a corrupted, degrading Eden. It was always going to be a rural show, but originally in the Ozarks, which I also know. Out of a few subsidy states, I chose Louisiana for the move because there were all these personal connotations and knowledge of the place I could bring to bear. It enabled me to write landscape that was almost as full as the characters, and that became an important guidepost in the writing: the awareness of contradiction, the landscape as culture.

The show is straddling a fine line between realistic terror and what could be interpreted as the supernatural, or figments of madness. Do you find this a tricky balance to pull off? 

Nic: A bit. We have a hallucinating detective in episode 2, which is weird, and the visions themselves are almost religious in their metaphysical nature. But the important thing, I think, is that there is a realistic explanation for everything. Cohle’s visions are accounted for by his neural damage, probably guided in some part by his unconscious associations. There’s no evidence to suggest that the things we’ve seen are the result of anything supernatural. Ritualism, some sort of worship is implied in the murder, but there’s nothing supernatural. Reality is the dread, and that’s probably where the line’s drawn. So we can touch these things and by doing so provide avenues for layers of meaning to settle and refract and resonate, but we don’t strictly-speaking break from the realist mode.

You also have a novel, as well as a collection of short fiction. Does your fiction delve into territory as dark as True Detective? Do you plan on continuing writing fiction, or do you see yourself focusing more on television in the future?

Nic: I think if you read ‘Galveston’ you’d probably spot pretty quickly that it and True Detective are the work of the same writer; same voice, same landscapes, etc. My short stories weren’t really genre-bound at all, but tended to be plotted character pieces that took a range of subjects and stories, none of them particularly genre. I absolutely plan to keep writing fiction. There are, I hope, many books waiting to be written, and they’ll be there waiting when the industry kicks me out. But right now all my creative bandwidth is occupied, so it might be that I don’t get to seriously return to books until I lose my HBO job.

I caught a glimpse of an interview in which you spoke about Laird Barron, one of the finest current practitioners of the weird tale, and an author whose work shows a strong literary backbone. How often do you read dark fiction, and do you have any personal favorite authors, or authors you would dub as essential reading?

Nic: I read all kinds of things. My all-timers are Conrad, Faulkner, Camus, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, but I also love Lovecraft, Campbell, Barker, Straub, and yes, Laird’s stuff is fantastic. One of the very few writers I read as soon as possible. Also love George Higgins, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Ellroy, etc. I think ‘Red Harvest’ is one of the best, purely American novels ever written. So my interests are everywhere on the literary map, I guess. And when creating, I’d just gotten to a place where I didn’t feel the need to necessarily compartmentalize or excuse them as ‘low’ or ‘high’ art. Story can accommodate them all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Interview: Michael Rowe

I'd like to thank you for talking to me today. Wild Fell is one of the strongest modern ghost stories, and manages to blend traditional elements with fresh ideas, which seems difficult to pull off with the amount of ghost fiction that's been published over the years. What do you think makes a good ghost story, and what elements/tropes do you feel are overused and that you yourself 

Michael: I think there has to be an element of suspension of disbelief in a ghost story in order to make it work, but that’s entry-level stuff. I think what’s essential in a ghost story, as in any story, really, is that you care for the imperiled characters. It’s funny, as the author of a novel that’s set in an old haunted house on an island in the middle of a lake, I’m probably the last person to speak about “overused tropes.” What I tried to do in Wild Fell is to imagine exactly, from the ground up, what it would feel like to enter into a situation where everything you knew, or thought you knew, about life and death, and everything in between, was suddenly upended. The novel is really about betrayal on several different levels—betrayal within families, betrayal in relationships, betrayal of friendships, and, literally betrayal of the laws governing life and death, even reality.

In my review I mentioned that both your novels were interesting in structure, with Wild Fell's narrator Jamie not actually visiting the house on Wild Fell until late in the book, and with Enter, Night having a 70 page "coda" following the main narrative. When you set out to write these novels, did you plan on structuring them so, or did that come later?

Michael: In Wild Fell, Jamie’s haunting begins years before he sets foot in the house, so in that sense, the house is a secondary, even tertiary part of his haunting. He carries the house within him long before he enters it. And in Enter, Night it was a bit of the same sort of thing. The vampire in Enter, Night makes a subliminal appearance in the prologue, and by the time he shows up in the novel, there are enough monsters running around, human and otherwise, to populate a Hammer horror marathon! In short, no—the way the novels are structured is the way they seemed to want to be structured when I was writing them, the way the story seemed to make the most sense.

What attracts you to working in the horror/dark fantasy genre? What scares you?

Michael:: I’ve always loved the permeability of the borders between good and evil, life and death, and reality and fantasy, in horror novels. I find the dark very beautiful, and being able to look into the dark, and see it for what it is, is probably very healthy. The human condition is a vast library of emotional and physical contradictions, and speculative fiction is a wonderful way to explore that without necessarily having to adhere to the rigid borders of realism.

When you set out to write your two novels, what was the biggest inspiration behind them?

Michael: The inspiration behind Enter, Night—aside from the fact that I’m basically a horror nerd who had been jonesing to write a vampire novel for four decades, but who always subsumed it to journalism and creative nonfiction—was the fact that I’d seen vampirism my whole adult life in the form of exploitation. Exploitation of the environment, exploitation of animals, exploitation of people and cultures that has been going on for centuries. Vampires are the ultimate opportunists in the sense that their raison d’ĂȘtre is to parasitically steal from their victims while giving nothing in return. I didn’t set out to write social commentary, but I think it occurred nonetheless. Also, just before writing the novel, I’d been very sick, and I’d had a glimpse of my own mortality. The notion that something can come in from the outside, something over which you have no control, and which can change your entire life, literally overnight, carried with it a powerful dose of inspiration. With Wild Fell, it was a more intellectually formed idea, the idea of exploring the effect of memory and its loss—the intersection of the past and the present, real and imagined, so to speak—using the structure of a classic ghost story to do so.

What are your personal favorite horror novels, movies etc?

Michael:: I’m an unabashed, die-hard aficionado of the original Dracula. For the same reason, I love Salem’s Lot—the book, not either of the two movies based upon it. There are so many other novels and films that I love, but I’m going to give a shout out to a few of my favourites here, though this is by no means a complete list. Of the novels: Michael McDowell’s superb southern gothic ghost story, The Elementals; Douglas Clegg’s Purity; Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon; Christopher Rice’s The Heavens Rise; Susie Moloney’s The Dwelling; Michael Marano’s Dawn Song; and almost everything of Robert McCammon’s, especially Usher’s Passing and Boy’s Life, two of my favourite novels, let alone horror novels. My favourite horror movie of all time is probably The Innocents, which is based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, though once again, as soon as I say that, a dozen other titles rise up in protest in my mind, all crying “What about me? I thought you loved me best!” So I feel a bit like a literary and cinematic bigamist at the end of the day.

Anything you can tell readers about upcoming projects and what we can expect from you in the future?

Michael: I have a short story collection coming out from ChiZine in 2015 called The Devil’s Own Time, and I’m working on my third novel as we speak, but I’m loath to describe at this point, since I’m sure, like most of my books, it’ll be a completely different project by the time it appears in print. Ask me in a year or so and I’ll probably have a clearer picture.

Once again I thank you for talking to me!

Michael: It’s been a great pleasure, and it’s been all mine!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Least of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones

One of the high notes of the latter days of 2013 was that the noir genre saw the birth of Broken River Books. Author J. David Osborne's Kickstarter-funded publishing project exploded onto the scene with five simultaneous releases, all featuring gorgeous Matthew Revert covers.

One of these releases is The Least of My Scars, one of the wildest, most twisted books I've had the pleasure of reading. Author Stephen Graham Jones is no stranger to the scene, and he is currently one of the most impressive writers working across genres, remaining at ease whether he's penning horror, noir, or bizarro stories. One thing he doesn't do is hold punches, and The Least of My Scars is one hard-hitting novel, giving readers a look into an extremely warped mind that is sure to leave it's mark.

The premise is one of a kind: serial killer William Colton Hughes finds himself caught by a local crime boss, who decides to utilize his talents. Posted up in an apartment that he never leaves, Hughes murders the people that his boss has delivered to his door. The system seems like it would be perfect for a man like Hughes, a constant stream of victims, anything else he wants delivered by the bosses henchmen, and a buffer of adjacent empty apartments connected to his in order to keep his business quiet. However, the isolation seems to further warp his already sick mind, and has him questioning reality.

Hughes is also the novel's narrator, and this is what really makes the novel shine. He makes for a completely unreliable narrator, very much unable to separate reality from his fantasies. His calculating, cold and sadistic side makes him very effective at what he does, although it's counter-balanced by his paranoia and debilitating fantasies, as well as bizarre OCD-style behaviors.

This book is not for everyone, and I mean that in a good way. Despite the over the top premise, the disturbed narration is scary. It's scary because Stephen Graham Jones managed to do such a convincing job. This isn't a narrative that goes away, days later I still find it festering in the back of my head.

This book is too good to be missed. It's bloody, it's scary, and at times it's even funny, which makes it even scarier. William Colton Hughes is destined to go down in the books among the greatest literary psychopaths and villains. So what are you waiting for? Go and knock on his door.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: Wild Fell by Michael Rowe

2011 saw the publication of one of the best and scariest modern vampire novels with Enter, Night. Now Michael Rowe's second horror novel, Wild Fell, is doing for ghosts what Enter, Night did for vampires.

Much like Enter, Night before it, Wild Fell takes place in Ontario and takes a structurally interesting approach. The main narrative of Enter, Night ended after 340 pages and was followed by a 70 page coda, a translation of an old document which cleared up a lot of the backstory/history behind the vampire infestation of Parr's Landing. The coda can stand as a novella of it's own, and was a unique, fun way to wrap up the novel.

Wild Fell is a bit unorthodox as well, with the narrator not even getting to the "haunted house" until the majority of the book has passed. This doesn't reflect badly on the story whatsoever, and further cements the idea that Wild Fell is a ghost story as opposed to a typical haunted house story. Fraught with themes such as gender identity and exploration of memory and memory loss, Rowe's sophomore novel is a literary ghost story that can stand with the best of it's kind.

Rowe does a great job with his characters, and his narrator Jameson Browning is an easy man to sympathize with, as he's had his fair share of disappointments and tragedies throughout his life. From the beginning of Jameson's (or Jamie, as he is mostly referred to) narrative, it becomes clear that his problems start at a young age of childhood. Childhood always makes for a wonderful setting for horror, as it's a period in everyone's life in which exists a certain, special blend of magic, awe, and terror that dissipates as we grow into a different perspective. While the magic and awe seem to disappear, the terror and trauma can often bury itself deep, bleeding over into life later on, and the narrative is a perfect example of this, with Jamie forgetting many things which he remembers later on as he recounts his tale.

The author is just as on point with the pacing as he is with his narrator, and although the volume clocks in at a slimmer page count than his first novel, it doesn't slow down at all and instead picks up speed as it cannonballs to it's gloriously creepy conclusion with an ending many readers will not see coming.

Wild Fell is the novel I ended 2013 with, and one that I could hardly put down. It is, without a doubt, one of the strongest ghost novels I've had the pleasure of reading, and easily alternates traditional ghost story tropes with a take that's entirely fresh and new. This one should be high on everyone's to-read list.