Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Interview: Timothy J. Jarvis
Timothy J. Jarvis is the author of The Wanderer, which was my choice for weird fiction novel of the year. Below is an interview I conducted with the young author in which he brings his knowledge of the weird to the table to share. Enjoy!
I'd first like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. What can you tell readers about yourself and your work?
Thanks for interviewing me; it’s a pleasure. Though that’s quite a tough question to open with. Well, in brief biographies I’ve called myself, ‘a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange.’ Which is close enough, and though that ‘scholar’ is deliberately archaic, it is true that I’m an academic as well as a writer. I’ve lived in London for a good while, and the city is one of my main inspirations.
In my writing, I attempt to fuse a fustian old Gothic sensibility with a more contemporary pulpish narrative, to bring together various tendrils of weird fiction, and to be jarringly odd: at times horrible, at others cloyingly sentimental, at times tense, at others comically absurd. The Romantic Gothic writer, Charles Robert Maturin, whose Melmoth the Wanderer is a key influence on my book, once wrote, venting his frustration at the critics and theatre managers who wished for him to exercise restraint, to curb his grotesque excesses:
‘I have no power of affecting, no hopes of instructing, no play or other production of mine will ever draw a tear from the eye, or teach a lesson to the Heart, so I wish they would let me do what I am good for, sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise, and by the pale and mystic light, I might show them “the best of my delights”.’
While I see much to admire in subtlety, consistency of atmosphere, controlled prose, in the end, like Maturin, I just want to throw everything at the page, see what sticks, then drench it in gore.
The Wanderer is quite a complex narrative for a debut novel, and works out quite well. What made you to decide to write it in the framed narrative format?
Thanks! I partly wanted to go back to the roots of the Gothic, with its found manuscripts and strange tale fragments, and in particular to those later, more complex and antic versions of the tropes, found in books like Melmoth and Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. And some of the most powerful weird tales, from William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, to more recent examples, like Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Gemma Files’s and Stephen J. Barringer’s ‘each thing i show you is a piece of my death’ (which I reckon one of the most terrifying short stories ever written) have been convoluted found text stories. It’s my sense that complex, many-stranded plot structures are like mazes, in which the reader becomes lost. They also, especially those involving storytelling, threaten contamination; the borders of the text are corroded, the tale seeps out, and the setting in which the reader reads seems just another frame. When the found text’s strange appearance of truth, its suggestion of being more account than story, is added to this, then the effect can be positively nightmarish.
What were the biggest influences on The Wanderer? While reading it there seemed to be many that stood out to me, and a few names readers of weird fiction should pick up on scattered throughout the book. What were you hoping to accomplish with this novel?
As I’ve mentioned, the key influence was Maturin’s strange book of 1820, Melmoth, a novel often considered the very last of the original Gothic mode. Melmoth is very odd text, which brings, to the violence and ‘bad taste’ of the Gothic, a high-Romantic sensibility, and also, more incongruously, the comical, sceptical, and metatextual mood of Renaissance and Enlightenment satire: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, and Diderot. I hope to set up a similar jarring clash of tones in The Wanderer.
Another important precursor, was Poe’s only longer work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe seems to have hated writing it and to have done so for quite cynical commercial reasons. He was, of course, a master of lyric verse and the powerfully atmospheric short tale, and based his poetics on a unity of effect, but I think those stories of his that leaven the ‘Arabesque’ seriousness, with the impish and ‘grotesque’, his most enthralling. And in Arthur Gordon Pym, a book often criticised as awkward, episodic, unable to sustain a mood, there is much that is grotesque, and downright odd.
Poe’s general disinclination for the novel also led him to attempt to make of it a hoax, and present it as a true travelogue; it seems he thought he could, in this way, ease his financial hardships with the sale of the book, while distancing himself from the potboiler nature of the project. But sometimes it’s parodic, makes its fictionality apparent, and at others, when Poe appears to have had a moment of enthusiasm for the book, a more sublime, philosophical tone predominates. It is a novel of confused motives and disparate moods, and also one in which the world of appearances is a bizarre puzzle, and the numinous lying beneath no less absurd. And I love it for all of these things.
Writing The Wanderer, I was inspired not just by Arthur Gordon Pym itself, but also by what I see as two failed attempts to solve Poe’s enigma: Jules Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice-Fields and Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Both attempt to make of Poe’s chaos some stable order, Verne through tedious scientistic explanation, Lovecraft by aligning the text with the events of his nihilistic cosmos. But Poe’s ridiculous text just sticks its tongue out, scampers about, clubs them to the ground.
This idea of the victory of the absurd led me to put Punch at the heart of the book. Punch is as brutal an example of the Carnivalesque prevailing over reason as can be imagined. I was thinking also of Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu, who, like Punch, is a scion of the commedia dell'arte figure of Pulcinella, and is also perhaps a descendant, via Lautréamont’s vile Maldoror, of Melmoth’s.
Arthur Machen’s London tales were also an important influence. In his work, characters may find themselves rounding an ordinary street corner in the middle of the afternoon, only to find themselves confronted with something utterly bizarre. I tried to infuse my book with this sense that you might just happen on something strange and terrible when wandering the city.
I also wished to weave together yarns pulpish, but believable, with threads of theory, to produce a rough and unevenly textured cloth. In this I was inspired by Angela Carter’s extraordinary The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a book in which philosophical musings clash with Sadean picaresque. Among the ideas that shaped my book are Vico’s argument that the nature of history is cyclical, Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of writing as a plunge into the abyss, and Eugene Thacker’s horror of philosophy.
There were a number of other key literary inspirations. A notion as to the structure of The Wanderer came from Machen’s The Three Imposters, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud was a particular influence on my thinking about the desolated world I wished to depict, and from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, ‘The Immortal’, I took a sense of disaffection and amorality in the undying. I also wanted to find an odd and apt voice for my eternal narrator, and cast about looking for models. I ended up taking quite a bit from Thomas Browne’s prose style, and allusions to Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus crop up in the book. I also took cues from the digressive nature of Laurence Sterne’s eponymous narrator in Tristram Shandy.
And there was one further influence on the book – eerily, a retrospective one. While editing the book, after completing my first draft, I came across a reference to a novel by Walter Owen, More Things in Heaven…, a book made up of linked narratives about cursed manuscripts, manuscripts that cause readers to spontaneously combust, a book itself supposedly cursed. Intrigued by the seeming resemblance to The Wanderer and undeterred by claims of malign influence, I ordered up More Things in Heaven… at the British Library. On opening it, I felt an eerie shock. The first line of Owen’s work runs: ‘On the 14th July 1935 Mr Cornelius Letherbotham, an English gentleman resident in Buenos Aires, died under extraordinary and distressing circumstances.’ The first line of The Wanderer was (and is): ‘On the 18th December 2010, Simon Peterkin, a British Library archivist and writer of weird tales with a small, if cultic, following, disappeared from his Highgate flat.’ I read on, gripped by a horrid fascination, and discovered more and more correspondences. Then I began dabbling, working more, this time intentional, allusions to More Things in Heaven… into my book.
Then, in the block I lived in at the time, there was a bad fire. No one was hurt, but the building was gutted. I stopped tinkering after that.
I guess my main aims for The Wanderer were to evoke a creeping weird horror, but also to create a riotous clash of tones and modes that would in itself be weird, to move from gruesome violence, to mawkish sentimentality, to the absurd and comic, without any respect for a unity of impression.
Or rather, I should say these would have been my influences, methods, and aims, had I written The Wanderer. But the fact is I found it in the flat of an obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, after he’d vanished in uncanny circumstances. Initially I thought it a novel by Peterkin, now I’m not sure who wrote it. I merely brought it to publication. And I’m no longer sure that was at all a good idea…
As a reader of the Weird, how would you describe weird fiction to a reader unfamiliar with the genre? What would you describe as essential reading for fans of the weird, both works of antiquity as well as their modern counterparts?
It is my sense the Weird is defined by a slow realisation, which dawns, dread and ineluctable, that things were never what we thought them to be, that they were always already weird. This is the etymology of the word after all; what the Weird shows us is what is, and has always been, fated for us. This is the main way the Weird differs from horror, I think. In horror, things as they are, are attacked by something which slops forth from some rent in reality. This thing may be defeated, or prevail, and the world will return to normal, or all will be changed utterly, but there is always the sense that the horror is something from outside, from beyond, that disrupts the world. In the Weird the world is shown to have been weird all along – we simply had our eyes closed to its weirdness before. Weird therefore lacks narrative climax, but has more subtlety: the true face of the world can inspire dread, but also ecstasy, or evoke both at the same time.
I think there are actually two kinds of weird. The first is the Weird as a true genre, a genre of stories in which, in a broadly realistic setting, a speculative element strips the mantle from the world, shows us its numinous flesh. But I think there is a broader category too, in which the general meaning of the word is present alongside its etymology; weird fiction here is simply what’s weird, what doesn’t sit neatly anywhere, is unsettling. This kind of story also shows us that what we thought we could trust – the stability of a narrative, the consistency of tone, sense and reason – can also be enweirded, betray us.
Because the Weird contains these two possibly categories, it can accommodate the visceral and scalpel-keen horrors of Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, alongside the chilling ecstasies of D.P. Watt’s The Phantasmagorical Imperative, and Anna Tambour’s delightfully delirious Crandolin – to pick at haphazard three brilliant books I’ve recently read, three very different books, but all weird.
My notion of what is essential weird reading is constantly changing, but off the top of my head, aside from those books I’ve already mentioned, here are a few I think really potent examples of the mode. William Beckford’s dark Arabian Nights fantasia, Vathek, is one of the oddest novels of the original Gothic I’ve read, and is certainly deeply weird. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly’s linked tales are harrowing and deeply strange. Stefan Grabiński’s tales, in which the occult and the technological are melded, are uniquely haunting. The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is one of the most consistently bizarre novels of all literature, constantly wrong-footing its reader. Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight is a bizarre odyssey across a surreal USA, reminiscent of some of William Burroughs’s novels, a novel of furious compassion and belligerent pacifism. The mundane strangeness of Shirley Jackson’s short fiction is, for me, utterly compelling. Robert Aickman’s work contains more overt supernatural and surreal elements than Jackson’s, but also conveys the horrible sense of a real that is unreliable, or has been compromised somehow. Eric Basso’s The Beak Doctor is an extraordinarily evocative work of fantastical urban decay. Kōbō Abe’s The Face of Another is a delirious and nightmarish work of philosophical horror. The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison is one of the most affecting and devastating novels of all weird fiction. And I find the bleak vision of Thomas Ligotti’s tales always gives a shudder.
As a number of commentators have noted, we seem to be in the midst of a weird renaissance at the moment, and there are a number of recent books that I think have expanded the possibilities of the mode: K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City took the New Weird urban fantasy template and gave it a fin de siècle, decadent mood; Kelly Link’s scintillating stories are bogglingly complex, structurally and generically, but with a real human core to them; Hal Duncan’s work has powerfully queered the mode, and woven in myth and folklore; Reggie Oliver has taken the classic English ghost story and made of it a brutal bludgeon; Mark Valentine’s and John Howard’s Connoisseur stories take the psychic detective tale and infuse it with a revelatory mysticism; John Langan has shown that the weird tale can be made metafictional and playful without sacrificing even a jot of its horror, and Nathan Ballingrud has shown that a spare literary prose style and brilliantly realised characters can be added to the form. And Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy has demonstrated that the weird can cannibalize other genres, be genuinely horrifying and transmutative at the same time, and can deal both with vast concerns and the minutiae of human life.
Does film interest you as well? What films do you think best express the sense of The Weird?
I think the Weird has translated really well into cinema – inventive filmmakers have found powerful visual analogues for the linguistic estrangement of weird fiction. Growing up I watched lots of horror films, particularly relishing ’80s slashers, but it wasn’t till I got to university and watched surrealist classics, such as Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Maya Deren’s At Land, that I realized a film could be strange and unsettling, without being overtly frightening.
David Lynch is a master of using striking visual effects and powerful sound design to enhance the weirdness of his strange, transgressive narratives. They are also utterly tonally inconsistent, rapidly cycling from horror to comedy to melodrama to crime and so on. I think my favourite of his films is probably Inland Empire, though I also love the often underrated Lost Highway, which contains, for me, perhaps the most terrifying moment in all cinema – the protagonist, Fred Madison, meets at a party a mysterious man, who tells him to call home, and when he does so, the mystery man, who still stands before him, picks up…
Other films with a powerful weird sensibility include: Bella Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, a film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, which enhances the strangeness of the central premise – a travelling show displaying a stuffed whale and a Machiavellian dwarf comes to town and rioting ensues – by using just 39 shots in its two and a half hour running time; Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, which takes an already very odd sf novel, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, and makes it truly weird by refusing to explain anything and suffusing it with a wan melancholy; The House with the Laughing Windows, directed by Pupi Avati, is a ’70s Italian horror, but is utterly unlike a conventional giallo –muted in its colours and effects, odd and etiolated in its plotting, it’s a captivatingly weird film; Andrzej Żuławski’s Posession is a truly bizarre piece, a harrowing relationship breakdown mixed with highly sexualized Lovecraftian elements, and espionage; Marebito by Takashi Shimizu is a far cry from the director’s Ju-on (The Grudge) films – there is no attempt to explain the speculative elements in supernatural terms, and few jump scares, instead there’s just creeping dread and a plot that mashes together weird influences into an impossible to parse story of manifestations of fear, an underworld beneath Tokyo, and vampire robots; Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom is quite possibly the weirdest TV show ever made, mixing up a number of utterly incongruous elements – a hospital built on cursed ground, a sentimental ghost story, child abuse, silly, and often ribald, comedy, medical drama, the rebirth of a monstrous evil – into something that makes absolutely no sense, but lingers in the mind; and Jessica Hausner’s film, Hotel, which is a masterpiece of restrained terror, taking a series of horror film tropes – a bullied new girl working in a strange hotel in the woods, a cave rumoured to be inhabited by a child-eating witch, another missing girl, whose glasses the protagonist is forced to wear – and inverts, twists them, building up such a cloying tension that a late revelation that a long corridor simply goes nowhere is enough to utterly harrow you.
Can you tell readers about any upcoming project or plans for the future?
I’ve been told that there exists a set of critical notes and an essay about The Wanderer, or a version of it, written by a student of the weird, who has apparently disappeared; I’m trying to track these down, and get to the bottom of the story. I have also been passed a collection of manuscripts that tell a very strange tale of a London under threat from some demonic source, of the tutelary spirits of the city, of the death of the scholar who discovered the texts, and of parallels with the demise of a decadent Belgian poet during the siege of Paris in 1870. I’m trying to see if I can make head nor tail of this before compiling these; I’m kind of hoping I won’t.