Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Aickman's Heirs edited by Simon Strantzas

Robert Aickman is a name that many readers of horror/supernatural/weird fiction have probably heard before. He didn't have a huge output of fiction in his time as a writer (I believe he wrote 48 or so stories that were published) but the stories he did write have long since established his name in the genre's history.

Aickman's fiction is most often referred to as "strange stories" instead of weird fiction or horror. His stories are less about the weird crossing over into reality as they are about reality and strangeness being intertwined. Even the most mundane objects or conversations found in his stories are laden with the strange, and his stories often utilize dream logic. One of his most well-known stories, The Hospice, serves as a prime example, and reading the story is akin to playing voyeur to someone's dream. Subtle is also a key word when it comes to Aickman. Much of the dread and unease from his stories comes across in a quiet, subtle manner, and often include liberal doses of dark humor.

These stories have influenced many writers over the years, and one among them is author Simon Strantzas. It was actually Simon Strantzas and Daniel Mills who pointed me in Aickman's direction years ago, and for that I am grateful.

It's also fitting that the man who introduced me to Aickman's work is the editor of the anthology I'm reviewing, Aickman's Heirs. I couldn't think of a better editor for this project, and ever since Shadows Edge I've been eager to read another anthology with Simon behind the helm. And oh boy, was the wait worth it.

Aickman's influence is explored in fifteen stories from some of the finest working authors. Brian Evenson's "Seaside Town" is an excellent choice to kick off the anthology. A man set in his ways gets dragged on a vacation with his girlfriend, and what follows is an excellent example of how to quietly and slowly build up dread.

Richard Gavin's "Neithernor" comes next and, as usual, is a standout. Gavin is a master of creepy stories, and this one ranks up there as one of his most unsettling.

I'm familiar with John Howard, although I haven't read him until I read his story "Least Light, Most Night." I now plan to seek out more of his work. The story itself concerns a man reluctantly accepting his coworker's invitation to a social gathering, and then it gets weird.

I'm most familiar with David Nickle due to his great novels, but the man can write some stellar short fiction as well. "Camp"is about a newlywed couple on a camping trip, and Nickle deftly hands the creep factor.

D.P. Watt's "A Delicate Craft" sees an immigrant worker taking up an unlikely hobby, and Nadia Bulkin's "Seven Minutes in Heaven" explores a small American town with a secret.

Michael Cisco's "Infestations" has a woman struggling with personal demons return to her home city to clean out a deceased family friend's apartment. Dread and paranoia infest the story.

Lynda E. Rucker's "The Dying Season" is perhaps my favorite story in the anthology. A couple spends time in a trailer at a leisure resort during the off season when they meet a young couple staying somewhere nearby. Rucker's story is brimming with subtle unease, and haunted me long after reading it.

Michael Wehunt's "A Discreet Music" stays closer to home, as a grieving widower is changing while confronting truths about himself. John Langan brings the strange into a strip club with "Underground Economy" while Helen Marshall's "The Vaults of Heaven" takes place in Greece as a British archaeologist is brought on to do some work on a few ancient finds.

Malcolm Devlin's "Two Brothers" is a sad story about growing up, while Daniel Mills writes the most subtle story of his that I've read, "The Lake." Growing up is also a major part of his story, as past events shape who we become. "A Change of Scene" by Nina Allan is the longest story in the book, and like some stories before it concerns a vacation gone wrong. The anthology ends with Lisa Tuttle's "The Book That Finds You" which is an eerie tale concerning a woman and her obsession with a certain obscure weird fiction writer.

The fifteen tales paint a powerful landscape of the strange, the subtle, the uneasy, and at times the darkly humorous. Strantzas's sophomore editing gig couldn't have been any better, and I'm sure this anthology will find it's way on many Best Of lists at the end of the year.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Interview: Molly Tanzer Talks Vermilion

To start, this is your first novel? How did it feel to finish such a big project?

It’s certainly my first published novel. I typed THE END on my first novel back in… gosh, maybe 2008? 2009? It was fun, but it was definitely training wheels time. I think that beast was like 175k, and it was bonkers. The second novel I wrote I feel no affection for whatsoever; in fact, I deleted it from my hard drive when I finished it, it was so awful. 

As to your second question… I’ve experienced various sensations at various times, with Vermilion. Finishing the first draft felt great. Finishing the draft that went out on submission felt… exhilarating. Finishing the version that’s now printed and thus no longer editable felt pretty terrifying, actually!

Much of your fiction takes place in historic time periods, but to my knowledge this is your first time writing a Western. What attracted you to this setting? What did you set out to do with the tropes and the genre?

My initial desire to have a conversation with the Western came about when I moved to Colorado. The scale of the landscape was amazing—I had visited before, but waking up every day to see mountains, being able to explore them at my leisure… living right where the prairie meets the front range… wow. It triggered my memories of being wild for the Little House books as a kid, and bam, I wanted to write something about this place. Uh, and I was also watching a lot of Deadwood.

The thing is… as you noted, Westerns have certain tropes. Most modern Westerns, in terms of novels and film/television, seek to either draw attention to those tropes, or to invert them, because even though the Western has fallen out of favor, we’re still all too aware of those conceits. In terms of characters, you have the Gritty Loner, the Native Threat, the Trifling Whore vs. the Good Woman, and so on. In terms of plots, you have A Stranger Comes to Town, the Man with a Past, The Person from Back East Who Must Leave Civilization Behind, and so forth and so on. Because they’re all very familiar, a Western that unconsciously draws on tropes can come off as feeling a bit outdated… take Appaloosa, the film, for example. While it was an enjoyable movie with a lot to like, I was annoyed by the movie’s embrace of the Trifling Whore trope in Renee Zellweger’s character. Maybe it’s a holdover from the novel, I’m not sure, but regardless, it was boring because it was just so dang familiar.

With Vermilion, I wanted to invert the Western while still paying homage to and drawing on the tropes of a genre that I love. So, while I might start with a Gritty Loner as a hero(ine), she goes East, not West; she moves from a state of detrimental independence to flourishing under positive interdependence (in the traditional Western, the hero usually has to “go at it” alone, leaving behind any wimminfolk or friends). Additionally, throughout the novel, traditional outsiders, even within the “Weird” Western, such as women, progressive thinkers/social radicals, and racial minorities prove more “civilized” and establish order much more effectively than those in a position of privilege. Oh, and of course, Lou is a person of color, and she gets a white sidekick. That was also fun to write!

One of the major themes throughout the book is gender fluidity and sexual orientation. Could you discuss why you chose to explore these themes at length and what you hope readers took away from this theme?

First and foremost, I write what I like to read! But it was also part of my mission above. Classic Westerns are often relentlessly heterosexual—or at least, they try to convince us they are, by having rough-and-tumble ‘good buddies’ visit a whorehouse or get married to make it clear they’re not really hot for one another. Hell, even Red River, which is famous (infamous?) for its awesomely homoerotic subtext, pairs Montgomery Clift’s Garth with a lady at the end, much to Cherry’s dismay. I’m having a hard time even coming up with a classic Western that features lesbians, or the implication of lesbianism. Maybe a little in East of Eden, but like, that’s kind of a stretch. (If anyone knows of any, let me know in the comments!)

Westerns are often very traditional in their approach to gender roles, as well… when men were men and all that. Women, with notable exceptions, are almost exclusively relegated to domestic duties, and even the ones that saddle up to ride with the boys are usually doing it to stay close to the man they love. Mattie from True Grit is the obvious counterpoint, but that’s one of the reasons True Grit is so good. And when you do get a gender-ambiguous character, like Calamity Jane in Deadwood, they tend to be tragic in some way. I wanted to spin this, and have a genderfluid heroine at the center of the narrative, one whose ambiguousness helps her, rather than makes her some sort of object of pity or spite, and who doesn’t have some sort of magical transformation moment where she puts on a dress to amaze the hero, showing she was “beautiful all along.” Meh.

As to what I wanted readers take away… I’m not sure how to answer that. Sure, I had a lot on my mind when I was writing it, but first and foremost I wanted Vermilion to be a fun adventure story—and I saw the characters and their private lives as natural fits for the tale, rather than object lessons. If anything, I wanted to normalize the presence of such characters and themes within the genre of the Western, not draw attention to them!

On that note, I’ll point to a novel that was almost constantly on my mind while drafting Vermilion: Connie Willis’s Uncharted Territory, a novel that at first I wasn’t sure I liked when I read it in college, but really stuck with me in that way of better books. For those who haven’t read it, I shan’t spoil it, but I actually structured the first chapter to be an homage to her novel in my first draft, and though I eventually chose to introduce Lou in a different, more effective (for my project) way, I kind of still regret the loss. Those who have read Willis’s novel probably know what I’m edging around—and anyone who hasn’t, who liked Vermilion, might want to pick up a copy. It’s a Space Western, and it’s super good.

Vermilion has quite a lot going on, being a weird Western with elements of Ghostbusters and a liberal dose of Chinese mythology/folklore. The psychopomp business is especially fascinating. What sort of research did you do for this novel?

What sort of research didn’t I do would probably be an easier question to answer. Of course I put a lot of hours into researching the Chinese cultural element, because I wanted to be as respectful as possible in my treatment of Chinese-American culture and the Taoist traditions Lou’s work draws on. I also read and did just a ton of random stuff… I visited a train museum, drove up to Cheyenne to see the lay of the land to give those scenes a touch of verisimilitude, researched the properties of cinnabar/vermilion… hiked all around the Rocky Mountains (oh, the sacrifices I make for art!). Hell, I even contacted a period firearm museum for information on Lou’s LeMat, toured the death facilities at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and got a prescription filled at a Chinese apothecary in San Francisco after reading all about traditional Chinese medicine in a copy of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Fun times!

Now for the big question. Are there any plans for a sequel? Will we see further adventures of Lou Merriwether or more fiction set in the same world? 

More fiction, certainly. This August, Nightmare Magazine will be reprinting a short story of mine called “Qi Sport,” which is about Lou’s first adventure. It’s referenced in Vermilion, but this is the full account. And next year, Lazy Fascist will be releasing a standalone edition of “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe,” a novella/short novel of mine (which you actually reviewed). “Rumbullion” is very tangentially related to Vermilion. No one who read “Rumbullion” on its own would have any idea it was related to anything else, but I think anyone who reads Vermilion first will notice some overlap.

As for an actual sequel… I feel confident saying Vermilion won’t be Lou’s last adventure. We’ll have to see! 

What else can readers expect from you in the coming months?

I have several short stories coming out—one in Joe Pulver’s anthology Cassilda’s Song, and all-lady King in Yellow anthology, that’s sort of about Ayn Rand and Carcosa… it’s called “Grave-Worms.” I have another story called “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” in Innsmouth Free Press’s She Walks in Shadows, ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Oh, of course, and “But Only Because I Love You,” in Dreams From The Witch House.

In terms of big stuff, I have another novel coming out this November from Lazy Fascist, called The Pleasure Merchant. It’s an 18th century picaresque about Tom Dawne, a wigmaker’s apprentice who becomes a manservant when he is dismissed after one of his wigs is sabotaged, and then rises through late 18th century society… but as Tom’s station changes, so do his pleasures… Anyways, it’s probably my most personal novel to date, and my least speculative work (even if it’s the most horrifying, in a lot of ways). It’s very loosely based on the real-life 18th century philosopher and poet Thomas Day, who was bewitchingly terrible. If people have heard of Thomas Day, it’s usually because he wrote a poem called “The Dying Negro” that was intended to drum up support for the abolition of slavery (good!), but Day’s sympathies did not extend to women. Because he was unlucky in love—this guy was basically an 18th century “nice guy”/MRA and all women he came near basically fled his presence—he adopted two orphan tween girls, took them to France to isolate them, and tried to train them in the hopes one of them would blossom into his ideal bride. The account of his experiment is best chronicled in Wendy Moore’s How To Create The Perfect Wife which I highly recommend if you want an excellent pop history read about how horrible the 18th century really was.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you!