Hello and welcome to The Plutonian, Jeffrey Thomas! Today I wanted to talk to you a bit about your new short story collection Haunted Worlds. I first got word of this collection from Des Lewis’s review of it. In that review, he stated that your story Carrion would have been a great fit for my anthology Phantasm/Chimera. So, of course, I had to check it out! I really loved reading Haunted Worlds! And I must say he was absolutely right, Carrion has this great mix of nightmarish ambiguity and creeping dread that I am just an addict for. I also felt that numerous other stories in your collection, including The Left-Hand Pool, were just as disturbing and mysterious. What draws you into engaging with the dark and nightmarish?
JT: I believe dealing with dark, unsettling or frightening situations in fiction is a mutual release for the author and the reader, a kind of safety valve for angst and a way to feel less alone with these anxieties, through such communication. Real-life concerns are distorted into something bizarre or weird – as you say, nightmarish – for the sake of delivery, becoming somewhat more universal, symbolic through the use of the fantastic. I wonder if nightmares themselves – of which every person, no matter their literary ability, is a skilled if unconscious creator – serve the same cathartic function. For my part, stories like Carrion and The Left-hand Pool specifically give me a vehicle for expressing my individual anxieties and observations on the human experience. At the same time, however disturbing the fiction, the fantastical element also reassures the reader that this isn’t really happening…it isn’t real…it isn’t real…
I must say, reading Haunted Worlds, I was struck by the wide range of styles you use in the collection. It’s amazing how well you pull all these different modes of writing off. There are the aforementioned nightmarish stories. There are also some morality tales with surprise endings that would be at home in an issue of Tales from the Crypt, there are some stories that lean more towards dark fantasy, some quiet horror, etc. Do you just write in whatever mode you are feeling that day, or do you purposely try to expand the limits of what one would expect of a story from you?
JT: I aim to be versatile; it would bore me to only write one type of story, use only one approach, just as it would bore me to only read Lovecraftian fiction or crime thrillers, to only listen to one type of music or watch one type of film. Even writing only in my dark future world of Punktown, despite it being a setting that can encompass many types of story, would feel limiting to me. Plus I like to stretch my literary muscles, to grow through challenge (as when I was asked to write a story for a collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories, and had never even read any of the originals before; I pulled it off and appeared in that anthology). I realize this variety of style and tone might result in my short story collections lacking a truly unified feel, but I hope the diversity makes up for that, and there are repeated themes and even images that echo throughout a book like Haunted Worlds.
I have to ask, was Bunuel’s film Le Chien Andalou an influence on your surreal and dreamlike story The Green Hands? They both seem to share some of the same obsessions.
JT: I’ve never seen it, though I’m familiar with the famous scene of a man slicing a woman’s eye with a straight razor. I just read a brief description of it on Wikipedia and I see what you mean: shots of the moon, a severed hand, insects crawling out of a hole in a person’s palm. I really must watch the film on YouTube. I will say, though, that some imagery in The Green Hands was directly inspired by paintings by the cover artist, Kim Bo Yung.
I find that you have one of the more subtle writing voices in the field. What I mean by that is that it seems you purposely try to keep the prose centered on the story and try not to show the author behind the work. I see your writing more related to a Matheson or a Hemingway than a Ligotti or a Bradbury. Would you find that to be a fair assessment? What are your thoughts on a more ‘purple’ prose style versus a more ‘clean’ style?
JT: Because my settings – particularly, Punktown and Hades – are so often fantastical, phantasmagorical in nature, I try to keep my voice low-key and matter-of-fact to give those environments a sense of verisimilitude. I believe this makes my worlds more accessible. I think a too showy or flowery style on top of that dense weirdness would be a bit much. When I do dole out a little more in the way of poetic prose, it’s usually in brief passages modulated so as not to seem glaring. That said, I love and envy the poetic voice of many writers, but such a voice complements the particular type of work they do. For instance, Thomas Hardy’s stories, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, might merely be soap operas were it not for the beauty of his prose and the depth and intelligence behind the mechanics of the plot-lines. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does the opposite of what I do with Punktown, in that it takes a real-life historical setting and events and presents them in a way that is fabulously nightmarish, through its hallucinatory and gorgeous language. Style serves content and intent.
What authors would you say were big influences on you? And what current authors are you excited about?
JT: Though it might not be readily apparent, again, Thomas Hardy and other writers not associated with fantastical fiction like Yukio Mishima, Charles Dickens, Thomas Harris, Martin Cruz Smith. In a fantastical vein, Bradbury, William Peter Blatty, Clive Barker, of course, Lovecraft. There is an overwhelming number of newer writers these days doing very impressive weird fiction and horror. Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn, Simon Strantzas, Matthew M. Bartlett, Cody Goodfellow, Gemma Files, John Langan, Richard Gavin, Mike Allen, Christopher Slatsky, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Michael Griffin, Scott Nicolay. Not-quite-newcomers like W. H. Pugmire and my brother Scott Thomas. I hate to leave anyone worthy out and I could certainly go on and on. There are names I’d like to add now but I need to acquaint myself with more of their work to see if the consistency is there.
Why is genre writing important? Why should people read horror, science fiction, and fantasy?
JT: I’m not sure I’d say anyone should read any type of fiction, but I can speculate on why they do. As I discussed earlier, in terms of weird fiction/horror, that kind of work can be cathartic, but in a more general way, fantastical fiction can offer a measure of escapism while at the same time, paradoxically, addressing real-life issues and situations – be they societal, political, or what have you. I think the flights of imagination possible in genre fiction can be exhilarating, provoke wonder, show us what human ingenuity is capable of. Maybe we won’t achieve the dazzling future of space exploration and intergalactic alliances that a science fiction writer envisions, but we can admire the ability of the human mind to conceive of such a vision, as we admire a dancer or gymnast pushing the possibilities of the body’s expression. Or maybe that science fiction writer, that George Orwell, can warn us what dark path we should be wary of taking. I feel genre fiction provides us allegory more readily than does nongenre writing. It’s evolved from the campfire tale, the nursery rhyme, the myth, the fable.
I think it would be fair to say that we are currently living in a pretty turbulent political/social time. What is a genre writer’s responsibility during such a time? Should a writer feel the need to engage with social issues? Or does a writer not have a responsibility to society, just a freedom to pursue their own visions?
JT: We are responsible only to not waste the reader’s time. We are responsible only to entertain. That being said, we can hold ourselves to personal responsibilities, and I myself do like to address societal issues in my work. My Punktown stories often concern colonialism, culture clash, class systems, human interaction with technology, and so on. It’s funny; online somewhere I read a reader’s review of my Punktown work (which I hasten to add is usually enthusiastically received, ahem) that complained the stories, which almost always function independently of each other, are just “slices of life.” That is to say, there are no wars or revolutions (why does science fiction always have to be about a war or revolution?), no big honking space battles, no messianic figures foretold by legend, come to singlehandedly save the day. Precisely: my Punktown stories are meant to be little slices of life…in a fantastical milieu, under strange circumstances. Their protagonists work in coffee shops and bookstores; at most, they’re low level crime investigators. These common folk work best for me in expressing what I observe about the human experience. I should think such characters would be more accessible for readers to relate to. But, we are so accustomed to those larger than life situations when it comes to science fiction – not to mention that many science fiction readers don’t want profound horror in their science fiction, many horror readers don’t want blatant science fiction in their horror. And there are those of course who don’t want to read anything that might seem didactic. Given our turbulent times, many people want to escape from the onslaught of all that in their reading. I must respect all these individual tastes in entertainment. I myself can only create what my sometimes angry, sometimes forlorn, always quirky muse directs me to create.
Do you have any new works coming up we can look forward to? What is next in your writing career?
JT: At this writing, Centipede Press is preparing a huge three-volume collection of nearly all my published Punktown short fiction, which will include a new novella written for the project. I lightly polished every story in there and I feel these are the definitive versions. I have a number of novels stalled at the halfway point – I haven’t completed a novel in years – but it looks like I’ll be signing a contract that will necessitate me finishing one of those novels by July. That’s the incentive I need! I continue to write short stories for anthologies/publications I’m invited to, as I’m able, though my day job and duties as a father don’t always allow for the free time. A role-playing game built around the Punktown universe is close to completion, and it looks like a graphic novel adaptation of some of my Punktown stories is going forward. I also have a collection called Tales From Somewhere, in which the stories all take place in a fictitious Asian country – inspired by my travels to Viet Nam – that needs a publisher…if anyone out there is interested!