Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Interview: Jesse Bullington, editor of Letters to Lovecraft

So far you've penned three published novels and numerous short fiction. As far as I know this is your first time editing an anthology. How did you adjust to the change? Is editing something you see yourself doing again in the future?

You're correct that this is my editorial debut, but I made my first fiction sale something like fifteen years ago, so I've logged a lot of hours working closely with professional editors. The funny thing is you learn as much from the bad editors as from the good ones. I've also beta-read a lot of my colleagues' work, so critically eyeballing other people's work isn't anything new. So adapting to being on the other end of the process was fairly painless, and a nice change of pace. That said, the work itself is just as time-consuming and headache-inducing as writing, so while I'm sure I'll do more of it in the future I doubt I'll make a regular habit out of it.

Letters to Lovecraft is an anthology with a concept that really stands out to me. Mythos anthologies abound, and there's also a good deal of non-Mythos themed Lovecraft anthologies, so seeing an anthology tackling his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature was refreshing. What inspired you with such an original anthology idea? Why have authors respond with fiction instead of short essays of their own?

The premise was something Stone Skin Press already had in mind when they invited me to edit the project. As soon as I found out what exactly they had in mind for the anthology my enthusiasm doubled, because as a longtime Lovecraft fan I'm of course very familiar with the essay, and it seemed a remarkably novel way of engaging with the Gentleman of Providence. Asking for original fiction in response instead of essays seemed far more intriguing, because by doing so they'd be demonstrating their ethos instead of simply explaining it. Since including your own work in projects like this can often seem gauche, the only downside was knowing that as anthologist I wouldn't be able to write something myself for such a neat premise.

With the anthology, what was it you most hoped to accomplish and what did you want to avoid? 

My primary goal was providing readers with an interesting anthology, one that represented a wide array of tones and styles instead of just ringing the same bell over and over.

The fictional responses from authors varied greatly. Some chose similar passages, some did not. Some wrote stories supporting statements from the essay and some wrote stories opposing the same statements. Are there any portions of the essay in which you think Lovecraft was 'spot on' and were there any portions where you felt he was totally or partially wrong?

Well, I don't wish to simply repeat the particulars I singled out in my introduction to the anthology, so let me see...I'm in harmony with a lot of Lovecraft's assertions, and even those I don't necessarily agree with are of course well-reasoned and articulate. If we can consider anyone a preeminent authority on the titular topic, it would be Howie, but as a result the essay is full of broad-sweeping generalizations--that there's one test of what constitutes "the really weird," etc.--which I find more interesting than convincing. But then I'm not much for absolutes in general--that this philosophy worked for Lovecraft is evident enough, and it's fun to contemplate. Oh, and in terms of his assessment of his predecessors, I'm more or less in agreement with him in some instances (William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen,and his particularly rich survey of Poe), but think he gives others short shrift--Matthew Lewis' The Monk, for example.

Do you feel that Lovecraft's essay is still relevant today, nearly a century after it was written?

Absolutely, or else I never would have edited the project! For all his shortcomings, Lovecraft remains one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, and I think future generations will always be able to learn a thing or five from both his fiction and his literary philosophy.

Finally, are there any future projects that you're willing to talk about?

A lot of my works in progress remain Top Secret Clown Business, but one that I can talk about is Swords v. Cthulhu, an anthology that I'm co-editing with Molly Tanzer. As you might guess from the title, it's a collection of action-heavy fantasy with a dark or historical bent. After the somewhat esoteric nature of my first anthology it's been refreshing to take a turn at something much more straightforward--we're still finalizing the table of contents, so while I don't want to drop any names just yet, I will say we've scored a number of luminaries of modern Lovecraftiana, as well as veterans of neighboring genres...

Thanks for your time, it was pleasure.

Thank you for the opportunity, and of course for taking the time to read the book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: Letters To Lovecraft edited by Jesse Bullington

Love him or hate him, it's impossible to deny Lovecraft's legacy. He is considered a pioneer of weird fiction, even if others of his time or before his time wrote stories that could easily qualify as being in that category. His work has inspired many, and his Mythos alone has swollen to obese proportions with fiction, some of which are finely polished gems and others are borderline fan fiction and pastiche.

For many, myself included,  Lovecraft was an introduction into the world of weird fiction. I still remember reading "Call of Cthulhu" for the first time, home on break from college and the only one awake in the house, reading the story which had been posted on some website, white letters on a black background. It called to me, and the following day I found myself walking out of a bookshop with a Lovecraft collection in hand.

Lovecraft's fiction lives on, and Lovecraft scholarship is still alive and well. Books collecting his letters (he wrote letters like you wouldn't believe) can easily be found, as well as anthologies containing stories said to be Lovecraft's favorites among his predecessors and contemporaries.

Fiction and letters aside, Lovecraft penned an essay titled "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In it he spoke of other horror writers and stories, and laid out his own philosophy on what makes successful horror fiction.

Author Jesse Bullington recently edited Letters to Lovecraft, an anthology of fiction written in response to portions of Lovecraft's essay. The title is a slight bit misleading, as these are not letters written to Lovecraft in response to the essay, but pieces of fiction. In a world where the market is glutted by Mythos fiction and Lovecraftian anthologies such a different approach is a welcome treat.

In his hefty intro, Bullington puts it all on the table. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Lovecraft is laid bare without bias. The editor also makes an excellent point about "Supernatural Horror in Literature" being important not just for writers deriving inspiration from Lovecraft, but for anyone working in horror. The writer asked several authors he admires to read the essay, choose a quote that resonates with them in some way, and write a fictional response. Some stories support the quote they chose, others set out to prove that quote wrong, and others do a bit of both. This isn't a clear cut "I agree/disagree" with the passage as much as it is an emotional response. Some authors chose the same passage and came up with wildly different stories, depending on what the passage meant for them. The result is an anthology unlike any I have read before, one that truly stands out as one of 2014's finest.

Many readers decide whether or not an anthology is worthwhile based on the ratio of great/good/bad stories. In this case the anthology was to this reviewer's taste, as there isn't a bad story in the bunch, although some are more effective than others.

Brian Evenson's "Past Reno" and Gemma Files's "That Place" both use the same quote for inspiration and both deal with children settling the estates of their deceased parents. Otherwise they are very different stories. Evenson focuses on the idea of uncertainty and the unknown. His subtle tale of a man suffering severe anxiety on his drive to settle his estranged father's estate is an ambiguous tale. Is the man's reality coming apart because reality is truly wearing thin, or is it all a manifestation of his fear and anxiety? Gemma Files works with an expanded version of the quote from Lovecraft's essay, and uses the basis of Narnia novels as a foundation for a much darker tale. Siblings return home to settle their parents' estate and remember a weird game they played in childhood, which turns out to be a little more than just a game. Angela Slatter works with the second half of the quote Gemma Files chose,  and her story "Only the Dead and the Moonstruck" is a bit more overtly Lovecraftian. Another tale of loss, this story instead deals with a family coping with the disappearance of one of the siblings. Emotions run high, and guilt is shared by the mother and also the sister, who may have seen something the night her brother went missing. A very effective tale of dread indeed.

Writers Nadia Bulkin, Robin D. Laws, and Paul Tremblay all responded to a quote about how proper weird tales have "a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces." The three stories were some of my favorites from the anthology. Bulkin's "Only Unity Saves the Damned" is a story about three outsider friends who make a hoax based on an urban legend, and how it leads to all of their downfalls. The idea of small towns being a "black hole" whose pull is impossible for many to escape is a theme of her story and one she executes perfectly. In "The Trees" Robin D. Laws brings readers on a sailing voyage with a grieving man who is brought on board by his uncle. He feels out of place for the entire voyage, and even more so when the ship reaches it's mysterious destination and he realizes what the purpose of the voyage is. Paul Tremblay sets out to prove Lovecraft wrong with "_______." The story draws dread not from atmosphere but from a very commonplace setting and an awkward conversation where something is just not right. The story is a true chiller, and it takes an author with talent to infuse such a scenario with as much dread as Tremblay does.

The last authors to tackle a shared quote are Jeffrey Ford and Chesya Burke. They chose a quote about fertility rites being performed by some degenerate, subhuman minorities. Jeffrey Ford's darkly humorous "The Order of the Haunted Wood" sees a fertility cult evolve alongside civilization, and to continue to exist behind the scenes of the corporate pharmaceutical world of "male enhancement" medicine. Chesya Burke's approach to the quote instead has nothing to do with fertility cults, and all to do about Lovecraft's racism, which is apparent in the quote. In "The Horror at Castle of the Cumberland" Burke writes about a young white man who has fits, whether they are of a religious nature or purely biological and accompanied with hallucinations isn't too clear. The story is about having a choice, and whether people make a choice based on what they believe or what everyone around them believes. For many, sadly, it is easier to be a follower rather than a leader. The boy witnesses a black man and his daughter become the victim of a mob for a crime they didn't commit, and the boy is left with the choice of going along or speaking out. It's a story that packs quite a punch.

The rest of the stories didn't overlap in which quotes they chose to respond to, but some overlapped in other ways. Stories by Orrin Grey and Ken Asamatsu both involve Lovecraft himself. In Grey's wonderful "Lovecrafting" HP is referenced, along with other classic weird fiction writers, but doesn't take center stage. The story is written in movie script format, making it further standout, and is one of the highlights of the anthology. Asamatsu's "Glimmer in the Darkness" features Lovecraft more at the forefront, as he has a conversation with a strange man while eating ice cream. Not the most effective story in the anthology, but entertaining nonetheless.

Livia Llewellyn's fiction always hits the mark, and "Allocthon" is one of the most effective stories in the anthology. It follows a woman in the 30's living in a company house in some sort of depression work town. Llewellyn chose a quote about nature and it's mysteries, and how nature "speaks" to man. The woman in Livia's story is stuck in a humdrum life and feels much like a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape. Things change as she goes on a company picnic and nature has an odd effect on her. She seems to be stuck in a loop, replaying the same day over and over, different every time.  A powerful story, as Llewellyn writes nothing less.

"The Lonely Wood" by Tim Lebbon follows a man visiting a cathedral and experiencing a sort of "personal apocalypse" making him question his beliefs (or lack thereof). Cameron Pierce's "Help Me" tackles a quote about judging a weird tale not on it's highest points, but on what it can achieve emotionally at it's most mundane point. Inspiration from Lovecraft's Innsmouth permeate this creepy little tale. David Yale Ardanuy tackles the legend of the Wendigo in "One Last Meal, Before the End." The story takes place in isolation, and gore abounds. Stephen Graham Jones brings his master storytelling talents to bear in "Doc's Story", a werewolf tale. Kirsten Alene's "There Has Been a Fire" is a subtle, poetic story about a professor. This was one of my favorite stories and the first fiction I've read from Kirsten Alene. The story is surreal, and manages to be both creepy and lyrically beautiful at the same time. A powerful combination.

The anthology ends with stories from two heavy-hitters of current weird fiction. Molly Tanzer chooses a quote about weird often appearing in works that viewed as a whole could fit a different genre entirely. "Food From the Clouds" goes forward in time to a London which has reverted back to more ancient ways of doing things. Barons own private lands in the aftermath of some sort of semi-apocalyptic comet crash. The story follows two poachers as they enter a walled-in area that no one else has set foot in since the comet crash. A fun story with bits of creepiness, Tanzer has managed to convey the feel of a much more fleshed within the confines of a short story. Not many fantasy authors can pull off such a feat.

The Mandela Effect, which is when people (usually many) remember things happening differently. Often these are unimportant things, such as people swearing that the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein Bears. It's mostly chalked up to man's memory being unreliable at best, but more esoteric theories abound dealing with parallel dimensions and all sorts of strangeness. "The Semi-Finished Basement" by Nick Mamatas is about four people meeting in a basement as a sort of support group. They eat blondies and bicker and discuss how they remember certain things in history as different from the rest of society. That the change was effected over the whole race but for some reason the veil wasn't pulled over their eyes. One man, a schizophrenic, goes on and on about The Crawling Chaos and Egypt. The ending is a riot, and a definite twist that I didn't see coming. Mamatas is an intelligent writer, and his Lovecraft-inspired tales are among the best.

By looking beyond the superficialities of the Cthulhu Mythos, and bypassing common Lovecraftian themes to look instead at the essay that outlines Lovecraft's philosophies behind weird horror, Jesse Bullington and his 18 authors have done something truly special. Letters to Lovecraft is easily one of 2014's best anthologies, and a must read for weird horror fans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interview: Rich Hawkins

With your latest novella you take readers to a small, seemingly isolated, small British town. I find that a setting can have a huge effect on a piece of horror fiction, as atmosphere can make or break a story. What drew you to this type of setting?

I was born and raised in a village very similar to the one in ‘Black Star, Black Sun’, and I’ve always loved horror/weird stories set in small communities. The sense of dread and isolation seems to work well in those stories, especially when combined with Lovecraftian themes. I spent twenty-seven years of my life living in my home village, so the idea that I could take that small village mundaneness and add some cosmic horror themes to it was very appealing to me.

Black Star, Black Sun is a novella, and is your second book to be published. Your first, The Last Plague, is a much longer work. Do you find the novel length or novella length to be more challenging?

The novel, definitely. It’s a long road and I seem to put more pressure on myself with a novel.This leads to bouts of anxiety and stress punctuated by moments of relief after a good day’s writing. I’m a bit fucked up, I suppose.  The novella holds a different challenge in that its brevity compared to a novel demands a leaner, more streamlined plot, but at the same time needs some meat on the bones. At the moment, I feel more drawn towards novellas, but that may change in the future - I’m still a rookie and I’ve got a lot to learn.

Besides Lovecraft, what other authors and pieces of fiction lent inspiration for Black Star, Black Sun?

I’m a big fan of Adam Nevill, and while I think his writing is not particularly Lovecraftian, it was a great inspiration to me when I was working on the novella. Also, Laird Barron’s work has influenced me greatly and continues to do so. I first read ‘The Imago Sequence’ about two years ago, and it floored me. It’s fantastic.

Growing up, were you always a reader of dark fiction? What draws you to these types of stories? Do you have any personal favorites (stories, novels, authors)?

Not always. I began reading horror/sci-fi/dark fiction in my early teens, but as I grew older, into my late teens and early twenties, I stopped reading any sort of fiction due to a greater interest in alcohol, women and sports. That was until my mid-twenties and I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Pet Cemetery’, and I rediscovered my love of horror fiction. King, in turn, led me to Lovecraft and contemporary writers, and ten years later my house is full of books.
I’m not sure what draws me to horror. I’m quite pessimistic, if that matters. I was a strange child. Horrific things have always intrigued me. If I’m honest, I think I find comfort in horror.
As I said above, the works of Adam Nevill and Laird Barron are great favourites of mine. Other writers whose work I admire greatly are Gary McMahon, MR James, Tim Curran, David Moody, Wayne Simmons, Conrad Williams and Nathan Ballingrud.I would advise anyone who hasn’t read their work to check it out.
And Lovecraft, of course…

As an author of dark fiction, what is it you hope most to accomplish with your work? What do you want readers to take away from your stories?

At the moment I’m just trying to build a portfolio of work and see where it takes me. I’m not writing for the money (or lack of it); I write because I have to, I think. It’s a strange feeling. I couldn’t even tell you why I started writing stories in the first place.
I’m just grateful that some people are reading my stories. If I can scare, unsettle or even affect them in some way, I’ll be overjoyed.

As of the time of this writing I haven't had a chance to read The Last Plague yet. Does it draw any parallel with Black Star, Black Sun?

Not really. There are undertones of cosmic horror in The Last Plague, but I never intended it to be overtly Lovecraftian, and it’s a different story in many ways. They are both very bleak stories, however, so they’ve got that in common, and they both deal with humanity’s helplessness against alien horrors.

Any future writing projects that you would care to tell readers about?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Last Plague, set some months after the events of the first book. Once that’s done I have an idea for a horror novel about religious fundamentalismand missing children.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks for inviting me over, Justin. It’s been a pleasure.