Christopher Slatsky’s Alectryomancer just may be the best book of 2015. A collection of vertiginous weird horror that like a rotten onion, as you read each story, delving layer after layer, it keeps getting more mutated and more disease ridden. A recurring motif in Slatsky’s fiction is characters wakening from a nightmare just to find out they have no idea just how deep in the nightmare they actually are. Like Ellison and Ligotti, Slatsky seeks to upend your comfortable views and inject a seed, a seed that will grow in your mind and destabilize everything that you used to take for granted. You too… may be stuck in a nightmare. Alectryomancer isn’t a book, it’s a mind virus in book form.
Some of my favorite stories from this collection:
Corporautolysis: A man returning from bereavement leave to his office job finds that his life is still rotting away and that you can’t escape the sadness that haunts you. A corporate horror story that explores a man’s unconscious grief with creepy, surreal imagery and a pervading sense of loss.
This Fragmented Body: A puzzle box of a story. An apartment building seemingly full of amputees and the shadowy figure that controls their fate. A story that has both a fragile melancholy and some deeply sinister implications. Shades of Hans Bellmer’s broken dolls and Ligotti’s puppet masters. Full of dark mysteries, it will leave you thinking about this story long after you have put the book down for the night.
A Plague of Naked Movie Stars: A night of Halloween fun for some mischievous boys takes a sharp turn south when they witness the start of something beginning to invade our world. A mindbending dark scifi story with some very sharp irony, there is no hope of rescue and no escape. This one really unnerved me with some moments of pure dread.
Christopher was kind enough to talk with The Plutonian:
The Plutonian: Hello Christopher and welcome to The Plutonian!
Slatsky: Thank you for the invite Scott!
The Plutonian: I was quite blown away by your collection Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. How does it feel having a collection out? How has working with the book's publisher Dunhams Manor Press been like?
Slatsky: You’re far too kind. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. It has been an interesting few months. I’m very fortunate to be working with Dunhams Manor Press. Jordan Krall is not only an exemplary publisher, but a fantastic writer as well. I didn’t intend to release a collection, so much of this has been a surprise as I was just submitting to an array of publishers to little avail when Jordan accepted four of my stories and released them as chapbooks. Shortly thereafter, he inquired as to whether I was interested in compiling my debut collection. I owe those who’ve published me an enormous amount of gratitude, but I’m particularly grateful to Jordan for his support, assistance, and everything he has done above and beyond any author’s expectations.
The Plutonian: I believe one of the things the horror genre does so well is to explore repressed fears and anxiety that we and our culture hold. To really dig into the deepest, most hidden parts of ourselves. What do you feel about weird horror as internal exploration?
Slatsky: The intent is to tell stories with a cosmic tint, while also describing the emotional turmoil and struggles on a temporal level. The cosmic is all well and good, but without some dirt beneath its fingernails and some scabs and bruises, the emphasis on infinite gulfs of time and space mean little. The universe’s dissolution by big freeze, crunch, bounce, or heat death isn’t particularly concerning to me if the petty, tragic, wonderful travails of humanity aren’t explored as well. Ants don’t quiver in awe at thunderstorms. Weird horror storytelling is my attempt to describe the ineffable. As a species we’re captivated by infinite expanses—it informs our concepts of an afterlife, religions, our gods, it invites fear and wonder. I suspect we truly are “intuitive theists”; that is, primates hardwired to interpret design in chaos, patterns in nothingness. A teleological interpretation of reality seems to be our default mode. Horror lit’ taps into this in that it fills me with a secular, pious awe that allows me to wonder if there’s something beyond the physical world, an order, or an ineffable truth that sets us to trembling. For better or worse, I’m just another non-theist dreaming about Otto’s interpretation of mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I write about beaten down travelers walking on bloody feet through this ugly, brutal life, who just happen to encounter paths that lead to transcendent realms.
The Plutonian: It seems weird horror is especially interested in the active perversion of what we call reality. In the taking the socially accepted worldviews of our existence and actively changing them to try to challenge the reader. Weird horror fiction could be said to be written primers in exposing the perverse nightmare of existence. Do you feel that weird horror is meant to challenge the status quo or maybe has a mission to show the world as a place bleaker than most are willing to accept? Or do you take a different viewpoint?
Slatsky: It’s fascinating to contemplate a what-if scenario where Descartes was onto something in asserting “… some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.” Weird horror allows me to explore how the world would operate if well known physical laws were merely one facet of how the universe works. What if the distortions and fractures in the engine perverts humanity’s attempts to analyze reality? What if all of our previous investigations of the cosmos are just slivers of what can be glimpsed through the keyhole? This questioning aspect is why I find horror so compelling—not just the bleak anti-natalism or pessimistic philosophies (though those are fascinating), but the terror, the passionate, religious response to the drama of finding an existence beyond this mundane life. A discovery that incites the same frisson of excitement I felt when breaking into a foreclosed house out in the middle of the woods when I was a kid, or on the other extreme, contemplating boundless alien terrain.
The Plutonian: There has been a lot of cross pollination with weird horror and philosophy lately, especially since the publication of Eugene Thacker’s In The Dust Of This Planet and Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race. Do you think weird horror and philosophy are linked and what does the current trend of pessimistic philosophy say about the times we live in?
Slatsky: I do think they’re intimately linked. The weird intrigues in that while acknowledging the limitations of a physical universe that confirms entropy (all things dilapidate, non-existence is daunting for some reason), it does so while providing a religiously heightened, dare I say melodramatic, response at the acknowledgement the universe is an amoral, unthinking infinity of mechanistic operations. Humanity possesses nothing divine, no magical scroll under our tongues elevating us from shit to vessels for souls. We petulantly insist we’re at the pinnacle of biological processes—for the most part, the world’s religions also attest to humanity’s superiority; even the secular explanations for Homo sapiens evolution is couched in progressive terms. Theists have their faiths, while most non-theists turn to humanistic philosophies extolling the virtues of art and literature. We cling to the stubborn paradox that we’re better than all else despite the evidence confirming our irrelevancy on a cosmic scale. We’re just another species of primate that had the misfortune to evolve brains that made us think our ability to concoct gods and art somehow elevates us. Weird lit’ allows a vast freedom to explore ideas along these lines. Horror finds disillusionment and existential despair over the very same things the vast majority of faiths find fault with in philosophy and science. Both the believer and non-believer emphasize how the lack of a Creator means life has diminished worth if we’re just a glob of biotic molecules, alterations of alleles over time makes us programmed automatons, victims to a genetic play written 6 billion years ago. Those of faith add a soul, magic, and/or Creators to the mix to alleviate existential despair on contemplating the lack of anything beyond a corporeal existence. Those without faith point to neuroscience as all but abolishing dualism. The skeptic and believer lean towards the view that a random, unguided tick-tock universe is a soul(!)-shattering revelation. It’s this religiously heightened excitement that I find so compelling in weird fiction.
The Plutonian: I think one reason that the current era of weird horror fiction is different from other eras is because it’s being written by writers who grew up with late night horror movies on cable and spending days searching their local video store for strange films. What has been the influence of strange horror films on your work and on weird horror fiction in general?
Slatsky: That’s an interesting observation. I turned 10 in 1980 and I can attest to the glory of gas station VHS horror film box art and the alternative sections with films by the likes of John Waters, the Quay Brothers, and Jodorowsky which all felt dangerous, punk rock and subversive. There’s something to be said for the sheer thrill of coming across Lynch, Cronenberg, Fulci, or Henenlotter on the shelves of cluttered video stores. I’ve definitely consumed a vast quantity of the strangest, sleaziest, productions to ever appear on Betamax. I can’t deny the influence of comic books, pulp literature, and horror films on my writing. I think the DIY attitude and general sense of experimentation of these filmmakers feel like kindred spirits to weird horror authors. While not denying the potency of traditional horrors, there’s something liberating and compelling about exceeding the traditional and telling stories in the manner the storyteller intended, whether easily accessible or not. Transgressive filmmakers and authors have that in common.
The Plutonian: Was there a author or book that was a gateway to weird horror for you? What are some of your favorite weird horror stories?
Slatsky: John Bellairs.
Between the age of 7 and 10 I discovered noir, Westerns, comic books (not necessarily in that order), which collectively ruined any chance of my telling stories without any speculative component. But the first author to really lead me on that dark path was Bellairs. Over the years I drew inspiration from Cormac McCarthy, Chester Himes, Rikki Ducornet, Hubert Selby Jr., Charles Willeford, Tanith Lee, and Ervin Krause. And it’s the usual suspects when it comes to horror fiction: Lovecraft early on, then my love of Algernon Blackwood far surpassed anything Lovecraft ever managed. I read Mervyn Peake and Shirley Jackson around the time I stumbled across Ramsey Campbell, followed closely by Robert Aickman (if memory serves it was a collection of British ghost stories). Thomas Ligotti came along a bit later, but not so late he wasn’t an important influence. Drops in buckets there though.
If I were to free associate and name a small sampling of my favorite stories, some of which are not from my author influences, they’d include Aickman’s “The School Friend” (though “Ringing the Changes,” “The Inner Room,” and “The Wine Dark Sea” are always present in my mind), Janice Galloway’s “it was,” Krause’s “The Snake” and “Metal Sky”. Setting aside “Wendigo” and “The Willows,” Blackwood’s “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” belongs here, as does James Tiptree Jr.’s haunting “Beyond the Dead Reef,” and Campbell’s novel The Darkest Part of the Woods is a masterpiece that had a huge impact on me relatively recently. I could go on and on, but yeah, Bellairs was the instigator. I blame him.
The Plutonian: Why did you decide to write weird horror and why is weird horror important to you?
Slatsky: I’ve had incidents of sleep paralysis all my life. The anxiety, the helplessness was something I was fascinated with even while dreading any further occurrences. I tried to draw inspiration from that terror when I started submitting shortly after I turned 41 and realized I’d never followed through on trying to get published despite writing as long as I can remember.
Shortly before I started submitting I discovered Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn, Joe Pulver, and Adam Golaski—extraordinarily gifted authors telling stories in a manner I wasn’t even close to emulating skill-wise, but sounding like the tales I’d always wanted to tell. So that anxiety over just how sharp the talent out there was and my hitting the wrong side of four decades booted me in the ass and forced me to actually send out the stuff I’d been writing, but never dreaming of submitting, for as long as I can remember.
As to the why, well, weird fiction allows me an uninhibited exploration of everything I find fascinating about philosophy, literature, socio-political issues, and science. Horror is that liminal space between beauty and the grotesque, between the borders of terror and ecstasy. Horror is asking questions about the ultimate fate of existence. There is no intelligent creator, no afterlife, no psychic powers, no magic. We’re all staring into the abyss, but some of us are overwhelmed with questions of what lies beyond the abyss. We look to horror for some mote of comfort by being discomfited, find that which is appealing within the unappealing.
The Plutonian: Can you tell us about any future works coming from you?
Slatsky: Not too much on the immediate horizon. My limited edition hardback of Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales will be released next year. And while I’m under no delusion that the new short story and novelette in this version will compel people to buy the book, I will say Dave Felton’s cover and interior art is more than incentive enough. I hope readers enjoy it.
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