Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: The Dissolution of Small Worlds by Kurt Fawver


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Kurt Fawver is on a mission to disassemble the world. Wait. That is not quite right. Let me up it another way. Kurt Fawver’s latest collection The Dissolution of Small Worlds is trying to break down how you view the world. After reading his collection, I am not sure what I mean anymore...

Each story in this collection takes the entire world and shreds it to bits. He then reassembles it in strange new ways. I think it would be a mistake for the reader to pick up this collection expecting a collection of standard weird horror tales. To me, Kurt Fawver stands more in the tradition of Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. He employs the tools of science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy to tell a darkly hypothetical tale, to talk about aspects of culture and existence that most may not be comfortable with bringing to light. What would life be like if this strange thing happened and how would we retain our humanity? Most of his tales start in the realistic but then end up in the completely fantastic. He does have a couple of quiet and low key stories that lean more towards the horrific, which may be my favorites in the collection since I’m biased towards more subtle horror fiction in general. I think the horror genre is more properly defined by its exhalation of Mystery, the erotics of the unhuman. I think Kurt’s work is more defined by Speculation, His stories are probes. They are examinations of the raw matter of existence, perverting and twisting it to find out its core essence. His work would be right at home in Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthology. What does it mean to be human in the face of an unknowable and ever-changing existence is the key question of this collection.

My personal favorite tale in this collection may just be The Convexity of Our Youth. A story that both attacks the reader with its surreal premise, but also has a bit of fun with the pulpy conceit of its plot. The Convexity of Our Youth showcases a town recovering from an unexpected tragedy. A mysterious orange ball has been appearing in towns at random, somehow instigating a strange outbreak of mutations. The orange ball envelopes this tale in a shadow of the abstractly alien as much as the monolith does in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trust I know how that sounds, you will just have to read for yourself, it really does come off as that bizarre and strange to the reader. The orange ball appears silently and suddenly, affecting only children who have the misfortune to come into contact with it. After a short period, a matter of days in most cases, the affected children undergo a horrific and painful metamorphosis into a literal orange bouncy ball. Their internal organs evaporating into nothing, their humanity lost. This is one of the strangest and most downtrodden stories you will ever read. It examines with microscopic detail the real grief and feelings of guilt that parents suffer when they lose a child. The whole story has this wonderfully bleak and apocalyptic feel. But thankfully, Fawver never loses sight that the story, at its core, is a story about kids turning into bouncy balls, and winks at the reader with dabs of macabre humor and some wonderfully delirious set pieces. The story is a master class in tone, taking an absurd premise and totally committing to it, going all the way with it until it becomes the stuff of existential fright.

I highly recommend The Dissolution of Small Worlds to adventurous horror readers and fans of the darker sides of science fiction and fantasy. Just try not to be alarmed if when you look up from reading the book, the world looks a bit… fractured.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Interview: C.M. Muller

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Welcome to the Plutonian! Your yearly anthology series Nightscript has been a favorite of mine since issue one. For my money, it may be the best yearly weird horror anthology around. What was the genesis behind you creating Nightscript?

Its an honor to be here, and I am heartened by your kind words. Thank you. As to the genesis of the anthology, there are, oddly enough, two points-of-origin. Back in the late 80s, during my junior year of high school, I produced a staple-bound horror anthology called (yes, you guessed it) Nightscriptas a young kid, I was extremely proud to have fashioned this catchy compound word. The first issue contained half a dozen stories and was produced at the print shop where I worked. This was my last job before venturing off to college where my love of horror fiction and the anthology I had once been so proud of quickly washed down the academic drain. Flash forward to 2012, or thereabouts, and I found myself returning to horror fiction, though more so on the writing side of things. I worked hard for a couple of years, trying to improve my style and occasionally submitting pieces to prospective markets. There was zero success, but with a bit of persistence and luck I finally found a home for a short piece entitled Vrangr.And what a home it turned out to be: Michael Kellys Shadows & Tall Trees. I mention this because I dont believe Nightscript would have been reincarnated had not this seminal event in my writerly life occurredfor when the unfortunate news hit (about a year after my story acceptance) that S&TT would be entering a state of indefinite hiatus, I was saddened to imagine the possibility that such a unique and seminal publication might never again see the light of day. So, all of my old experience from that long-ago print shop anthology returned and I thought why not give it a go. I was confident I had the technical expertise, though remained skeptical about the publications reception, i.e. how to market it. But sometimes, as we all know, we just have to trust our intuition. To paraphrase the immortal words of Ray Bradbury: I threw myself, idea in hand, over the cliff and built my wings on the way down. And what a ride it has been!

Nightscript has this nice blend of different genres, like weird horror, dark fantasy, and ghostly fiction. What is the missionof Nightscript? What kind of impact do you wish it to have? What kind of work are you trying to champion?

I originally envisioned a much smaller publication that would have included no more than a dozen stories, all in the mode of Robert Aickman. My intent, from the outset, was to focus exclusively on quiet horror.After putting the call out for stories, however, my perspective on the enterprise shifted considerably. I realized that limiting the type and quantity of fiction I was looking to include was not really the route I wanted to take. Im not afraid to admit that for the entirety of the year that the first volume was in production, I was anxious to the Nth degree. While I knew there was enthusiasm in the community, I had no idea that the project would eventually be so well-received. Indeed, no less than Ellen Datlow called it a very promising debut anthologyin her Best Horror of the Year. Readers also seemed to like the aesthetics I was going for, and so I felt encouraged to expand the project outward. Hard to believe that I will soon be reading for Volume 5! I think my main goal of the anthology has always been to promote exceptional writing and stories that resonate. And just what is exceptionalwriting? Well, for Nightscript I would say that a potential entry needs first and foremost to be dreamlike, in the sense that the writing (the content and the style) must lull me into an experience that is both emotional and new. Sure, there is always the entertainment side of the reading experience, but there needs to be something more. Des Lewis, in his Real-Time Reviews, summed the anthology up best: Weirdness with truth at its heart.

Your Chthonic Matter Press was a huge influence on me to start my own little micro publishing press, Plutonian Press, and publish my own anthology, Phantasm/Chimera. What are your thoughts on the micro/small press publishing world?

You know, that is so fantastic to hear. It really is. One of my goals/hopes at the outset was to encourage/inspire others to step into the role of editor/anthologist. For me, there is no better feeling than knowing that Ive in some way inspired others to create. While there are many benefits to be had in regard to publishing an anthology, I would say that this, as well as the discovery of new talent, are the most rewarding. My thoughts on the micro/small press scene are simple to summarize: This is where its at, people. This is where some of the best writing can be found. Sturgeons Law, right? Ninety percent of everything is crap. Well, Id say that the majority of that exceptional ten percent can be found in the micro/small press sphere. I guess it all boils down to what excites and inspires you. For me, a lot of the work being published in this underground networkis the stuff that will be around for some time to come. Perhaps this is because we have for the most part distanced ourselves from the big business publishing model, where sales are more important than substance. Theres an energy and originality that exists here that I simply do not find in the upper echelons of the publishing biz. There are exceptions, of course, but overall I would say that I am inspired almost exclusively by the Davidsin this Goliath story.

You also are a masterful writer of quiet horror fiction. What is the seduction of the creepy and the unnerving to you?

Id ask that you redact masterfuland replace it with middling,but I sure do appreciate such a kind classification! You know, I wish I could give you a more proper explanation about the seductionthat this type of fiction affords, but it really is a difficult question to answer. I guess we all consume stories for different reasons and in different ways, whether we are a Writer, Reader, Anthologist, or a combination of all three. We draw forth technical things, emotional things, things which enlighten us, things which explicate the joys and horrors and mysteries of the human condition. Ah, the hell with itlets just keep the Mystery of it all intact and enjoy it while it lasts.

If you were to publish an anthology of your all-time favorite horror short stories, what are some of the stories you would choose?

Well, I could certainly fill dozens of volumes, but I will limit myself to ten:

Lisa Tuttles Bug House
Jason A. Wyckoffs Knotts Letter
Shirley Jacksons The Summer People
Terry Lamsleys Walking the Dog
Jerome Bixbys Its a Good Life
Mike Conners Stillborn
Clive Barkers Coming to Grief
Flannery OConnors Good Country People
David J. Schows Not From Around Here
Brian Evensons Windeye

With Halloween just around the corner, I would be remiss to not ask you, what are you favorite go to horror films to watch in October?

The one which readily comes to mind (largely because I just acquired a VHS copy at Goodwill last week) is Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. This is always a fun one to immerse yourself in. (And, bonus, the storyline does not include that creep, Michael Myers!) Im also curious about the new Haunting of Hill House remake currently playing on Netflix. Another film I might mention is Philip Ridleys The Reflecting Skin. If there is a Nightscript story which could be said to have been translated to the silver screen, this might very well be it. Such a brilliant movie, on so many levels. One of my absolute favorites.

You have a new anthology coming out in 2019, Twice Told: A Collection of Doubles. I do believe that the book is themed around Doppelgangers? What drew you to this theme? And are we going to be seeing more stand-alone anthologies from Chthonic Matter Press?

Yes, I am extremely excited about this project. The contents (22 stories) are absolutely incredible, and I think readers will be pleased with the unique approaches each writer has taken in regards to the theme. As far as what drew me to such subject matter: Hey, whats not to like about coming face-to-face with a duplicate of yourself? Theres something unnerving and delightful about the idea. What I was hoping to achieve with this stand-alone anthology, however, was to avoid, as much as possible, the traditional route of the doppelgänger, and for the most part, I think I have succeeded. I will be curious to see how it is received. And, yes, I have a number of ideas for similar stand-alone anthologies in the coming years. I cant speak of anything definitive as yet, but if things go well with Twice-Told, Id say that there is a strong likelihood that other themed anthologies will be born. Ive also been tinkering with the idea of starting another non-themed anthology, a sort of sister publication to Nightscript, though something a bit more SF-oriented, à la Black Mirror. Given the current environment in which we live, this seems like a pertinent and exciting avenue to explore. I feel that there might be a good bit of crossover from the weird fiction community, and so perhaps the time is right to take yet another plunge from Bradbury Heights.

What can we expect next from C.M. Muller and Chthonic Matter Press?
First off, Id like to thank you for providing this platform, and for your unflagging encouragement these past few years. I have four stories that should see print relatively soon. They are slated to appear in Vasterian, Weirdbook, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, and the Stefan Grabinski-inspired anthology In Stefans House edited by Jordan Krall. Im super excited to be included in these publications. Im also planning to release my debut story collection later this year, entitled Hidden Folk, which will contain twelve or so previously published tales. And, last but not least, there is the continuing dark saga that is Nightscript: Ill be open to submissions for Volume 5 this January. I have a feeling that 2019 is going to be an insanely busy but incredibly inspiring year. Onward!

Buy Nightscript 4 here:
https://chthonicmatter.wordpress.com/nightscript/

Guest Post: The Numinous in God, Nature, and Horror. By Christopher Slatsky





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  Caspar David Friedrich's painting, Woman Before the Rising Sun (alternatively titled Woman Before the Setting Sun) elicits a profound awe at the majesty of nature. The woman’s outstretched hands convey something like prayer or a supplication of wonder at the sight of dawn (or dusk). Friedrich's paintings, in general, demonstrate a transcendental realm where nature reigns. His art conjures astonishment at humanity’s tremulous presence on Earth.
  Hiroshige’s Wind Blown Grass Across the Moon accomplishes something similar. While it would be a chauvinistic mistake to make a one-to-one comparison, Hiroshige’s portrayal of grass contrasted against a full moon is similar to Woman Before the Rising Sun; both evoke terror and wonder in the face of Nature.
 Volumes could be written on African art alone. Take the Yoruba, for the,

...deft, luminous peace of Yoruba religious art blinds us therefore to the darker powers of the tragic art into which only the participant can truly enter. The grotesquerie of the terror cults misleads the unwary into equating fabricated fears with the exploration of the Yoruba mind into the mystery of his individual will and the intimations of divine suffering to which artistic man is prone.

  There’s an ominous quality to these arts—in paintings, film, music, literature, the emphasis on nature occulted, yet also gloriously pious, conveys a sense of awe, of the universe’s scope and our infinitesimal place in it, of God, of beauty and mystery. There are so many fascinating examples amongst various cultures I can’t possibly do justice to the varieties of art that explore the connection between God, Nature, and fear.
  Of course, we’re dealing with Rudolf Otto’s awful terror, his oft-discussed Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. It’s the numinous reverence at the heart of religious, as well as artistic, and literary fervor. Rather than give my interpretation of Otto’s concept, I’ll let his own words clarify the idea,

We will take to represent this [absolute overpoweringness] the term majestas, majesty—the more readily because anyone with a feeling for language must detect a last faint trace of the numinous still clinging to the world. The tremendum may then be rendered more adequately tremenda majestas, or “aweful majesty”.
...there is the feeling of one’s own submergence, of being but “dust and ashes” and nothingness. And this forms the numinous raw material for the feeling of religious humility...

  Regardless the art or time, there’s this difficult to define liminal (as opposed to liminoid) stage where ecstatic fear and religious ecstasy in the face of one’s faith, or the natural World, coincide. That groveling submission before something so beloved it intimidates and inspires is paramount. What are its origins? Why this submissive dread, this overwhelming fascination with the ineffable that invariably informs so much art, so many religions, and horror fiction specifically? Most importantly, does the numinous reside within the believer and non-believer; the deist, polytheist, monotheist, atheist, and the secularist throughout human history? As Almond states, “...the numinous experience may be conceptualized in theistic, trans-theistic, and non-theistic terms”.
  I have a distinct memory of when I was 5 and we’d just moved from Southern California to Oregon, to our new home, a house hidden away in the woods on an isolated 32-acre forest-covered mountain. I remember the first night there, standing by myself outside, looking into the dark woods free of any light pollution in such a distant place. I was dumbstruck by the majesty and mystery of it all. Like Sanderson in Blackwood’s “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”, I too was consumed by what I can only describe as a pantheistic fervor and raw atavistic fear at what I could not comprehend lurking within the darkest depths of the forest. I experienced that pious terror in the grandeur and power where nature, religion, and horror embrace.
  The vastness of the natural world may invoke reactions similar to those moved by pious revelations, and this is of great relevance to the terrifying grandeur of weird storytelling. The uncanny is omnipresent and seems to be an innate aspect of being human, of how we view the world and how the irrational, surreal, and disturbing distortion of the physical world invokes unease.
 As a species we’re captivated by infinite expanses—it informs our concepts of an afterlife, religions, our gods, inviting fear and wonder. This reaction to never-ending spaces and concepts is likely innate. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt write in their groundbreaking study,
...two features form the heart of prototypical cases of awe: vastness, and accommodation. Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self's ordinary level of experience or frame of reference. Vastness is often a matter of simple physical size, but it can also involve social sizes such as fame, authority, or prestige. Signs of vastness such as loud sounds or shaking ground, and symbolic markers of vast size such as a lavish office can also trigger the sense that one is in the presence of something vast. In most cases vastness and power are highly correlated so we could have chosen to focus on power, but we have chosen the more perceptually oriented term “vastness” to capture the many aesthetic cases of awe in which power does not seem to be at work.

  I’m reminded of the brilliant writings of R.H. Benson, whose Catholicism informed his ghost stories as sage warnings against spiritualism, a heartfelt condemnation or offense at the intrusion of the supernatural. In his novel The Necromancers, a “Thing” has traveled from “a spiritual distance so unthinkable and immeasurable, that the very word distance meant little.”
  Vastness. Light years. Parsecs. Immeasurable gulfs. There’s a tattoo of the numinous inked in our brains, and so this indescribable dread in the face of the supernatural or Nature’s majesty is unavoidable. Few writers captured this so passionately as Benson.  
  John Gatta points out that the poet William Cullen Bryant makes an interesting point relevant to the numinous in Nature (referring to Bryant’s poem, The Prairies),
Only by looking beyond this vacancy, and beyond the current vitality of insects, birds, and ‘gentle quadrupeds,’ can [Bryant] imagine the prehistory of human races that once inhabited this land. He then finds the landscape haunted by ghostly powers.

  Gatta goes on to refer to Thoreau with a similar observation,

And insofar as the sacred corresponds most broadly to an experience of the numinous—that is, to an encounter with something “wholly other,” beyond the usual bounds of human culture, the nonhuman world of nature is evidently allied to the numinous. Confirming nature’s “wildness” has at least a potential religious value then, insofar as it helps us, in Thoreau’s words, “to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

  God, Nature, and horror are inexorable aspects of our being.
  Our brains assume the persistence of our thoughts, emotions, personalities, and minds after death. Studies have proposed that children implicitly support belief in an afterlife, as it is impossible for the human brain to comprehend non-existence.
  There is tantalizing research on humans being “implicit”, or “intuitive” theists—that is, primates programmed to interpret design in disorder, patterns in nothingness, order in ambiguity. We are set to attribute intention to natural objects.
  We are “promiscuous” teleologists, interpreting natural phenomena as being there for us. The world revolves around Homo sapiens, and any perceived design is surely the consequence of supernatural forces choosing to single out humanity. Horror taps into this atavistic theism in that it may fill the reader with a form of awe that allows one to contemplate whether there’s something beyond this physical world, an order, an ineffable truth that sets us to gape at the majesty of chaos. The conceit of an ineffable cosmos caring about us is a seductive thought, and even permeates secular humanist ideologies in exemplifying the virtues of our accomplishments through art, science and such, as if we’ve achieved some pinnacle on the Great Chain of Being.
  Even if we’re born with the assumption of agency, and the glories of the numinous may be part and parcel of that genetic bundle, theism isn’t universal. Otto assumed Christianity when proposing his mysterium, tremendum et fascinans. The concept of the numinous is still important despite Otto’s monotheistic default. Humanity’s insignificance in the face of storms, the ocean and its depths, vistas, massive mountain ranges, the vastness of the cosmos, in the complexity of the infinite, of numbers, Fibonacci patterns, fractals, infinite repetitions in the natural world, is universal and doesn’t require theism to inspire and thrill. Nature is awe-inspiring. Nature is terrifying. We’re all the product of the same evolutionary processes; we have a numinous seed planted in our heads regardless of the culture or era we were born into.
  The numinous remains relevant to non-theistic expressions. There’s something more, if not universal, applicable across a wide swath of humanity, Theistic cognition is so deeply ingrained that even atheists, agnostics, and less religious people display implicit responses consistent with religious beliefs.
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Of course, much of this may run the risk of putting too much credence in sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, as explanations for human behaviors. All too often the rather tenuous findings of sociobiology are cherry-picked and shoehorned into specific political opinions. But when it comes to the numinous, I think an acknowledgment of its persuasive influence across cultures, among various faiths and philosophies, in wildly different artistic expressions, merits some consideration. This humbling, frightening astonishment occurs whether contemplating one’s place in the universe, the nature of the gods, or peering into the dark recesses of a vast unexplored forest.
  Nature and pious wonder are inexorably bound. The mystery and beauty of the natural world inspire a breathless admiration comparable to religious mania. This universe is awesome in its scope and impenetrable depths; this existence is awesome in the terror it invokes at our inability to fully comprehend its secrets.
  All we can do is wallow in our venal imperfections. We’re all gazing out upon the abandoned, dead universe with something like jealous admiration and fear, dreaming of no longer being alone. We tremble before the majestic realization that we will never know anything with certainty.




Bibliography

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. Oxford University Press, 1958.

Almond, Phillip C. Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World Religions. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014.

Keltner, Dacher and Haidt, Jonathan. “Approaching awe, a moral spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” Cognition and Emotion, 17, no. 2, (2003).  

Benson, R.H. The Necromancers. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909.

Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2004.8. Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. “The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity.” Developmental Psychology, 2004:40.

Kelemen, D., & DiYanni, C. “Intuitions about origins: purpose and intelligence in children’s reasoning about nature.” Journal of Cognition and Development, 6, (2005).

Uhlman, Eric Luis, Poehlman, Andrew, and Bargh, John A. “Implicit Theism.” In Handbook of Motivation and Cognition Across Cultures, edited by Richard Sorrentino, Susumu Yamaguchi, Cambridge: Academic Press, 2008.