Tuesday, January 30, 2018

New Interview: Matthew M. Bartlett



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I would like to welcome back to The Plutonian, Matthew M. Bartlett! This will be the first time I have had a guest on twice to be interviewed. I originally had him on to talk about one of my favorite books, Matthew’s collection from 2014’s Gateways to Abomination. Also, Matthew was kind of enough to let me publish his amazing story “ Provisions for a Journey “ in my anthology Phantasm/Chimera! Matthew has a new collection out from Dunhams Manor Press called The Stay Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities. Welcome back, Matthew!

Glad to be back!

I feel like the stories in The Stay Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities are some of your most assured and masterly work. From the gonzo nightmare freakout of Carnomancer to the insidiously strange No Abiding Place on Earth, you really seem to have found your footing. One of your earliest collections, Gateways to Abomination, was a masterpiece of short prose pieces, maybe almost vignettes really. Now, in The Stay Awake Men, these are more traditional short stories. Do you prefer one mode over the other? Is this a reflection on where you are heading with your writing? Are there any thoughts of attempting a novel?  

 I like to go back and forth between flash prose-poetry pieces and traditional short stories. Each is satisfying in its own way, though traditional stories are certainly more of a challenge –a healthy challenge. I don’t really know where I’m heading. I can say that my current project is a serial novel, though it’s certainly not a traditional narrative as such. It’s an experiment. I hope it works. I don’t know if I’ll ever do a traditional novel. If I do, I want it to be one of those can’t-put-it-down narratives, a book where the reader is desperate to know how it all turns out, rather than a ponderous slog. If I can’t do something like that, I probably won’t do a novel at all.

In your work, you seem to take a delight in the many ways the human form can be altered and perverted. While say, Clive Barker took an erotic delight in the flesh, I would say you take a more blackly comical approach. What are your thoughts on the flesh and its seemingly infinite forms?

 I’m revolted by my own body. I avoid it as much as possible. I hate that I have to deal with it in the damned shower. As I get older, it pulls terrible, nasty little tricks on me, things I never would have anticipated or even known to dread as a younger man. The flesh, the body, is a series of problems waiting to happen. We err when we try to think of our “soul” or “spirit” as separate from the body. It’s woven in tightly. We’re vulnerable as can be. We’re subject to injury, of course, and diseases from within. Accidents are around every corner, in your house and out. Enjoyable food fattens us up. Age causes us to deteriorate. A lot of fear is born of finding some abnormality in our own bodies, or having a doctor finding something. The lump in the breast. The strange flare-up or rash. The terrible diagnosis. And just so it isn’t all awful, we have sex thrown in there. Of course, sex has its own horrors, and its own risks.

Many of your stories take place in a fictional small town called Leeds, located in Massachusetts. Leeds is haunted by sinister radio transmissions and devilish forces, and has a sense of place that maybe rivals Lovecraft’s Arkham. What I want to ask is, is Leeds a place that represents something that you genuinely fear? Or is Leeds somewhere that you would actually like to escape to, as kind of a personal dark fairyland?
 
I would love spending time in my Leeds. I would be a regular listener to WXXT. I’d have the wacky morning show on as I cooked up my morning bacon. I’d always be attending services at the corrupted churches and seeking out the odd gatherings of men in old-style clothing in strange places. I’d eat at the Bluebonnet every Saturday…actually, I do that now. I’d take a lot of pictures if I lived there, and I’d close down Anne Gare’s bookshop every night, having spent a frightful amount of my paycheck on weird books. Whenever I write about Leeds, I’m visiting, and I’m happy. I’d probably move there. I’d be frightened all the time, unsure of my sanity. That would be fine. That would be better than fine.

There is this real sense of fun when reading your work. You can tell here is an author who enjoys writing and it really shows. Have you always been into horror and writing? Was there a definite point where you decided to just go for it and start submitting work?

 I loved horror forever, but the fact is I couldn’t write horror until I started writing horror. My early attempts were just laughable. As I was preparing Gateways for publication, I began to submit pieces from it here and there, not wisely or with any kind of strategy at all, just scattershot. One or two were published in small press anthologies, at least one of them in a press I’m still very fond of, and I was and am happy about that, but I always felt those tales worked better in the context of the book, the trajectory of the book, as the bigger picture comes into play as the reader proceeds through the book in order. But, anyway, I love writing this stuff, even when it’s challenging, or when it causes me to lose sleep thinking about how to get myself around a plot difficulty. I’m glad that it shows.

A writer who I know influenced you is Stephen King. King, I would say, is talked about a lot in mainstream horror circles, but not really at all in weird horror circles. Can you talk about how King influenced your writing? And also, do you feel that King’s work is still relevant to the horror scene today?
 
I don’t know that he’s not talked about in Weird circles. Then again, I think there’s a huge overlap between Mainstream and Weird horror circles, at least in my personal experience. This is me talking from my ass, but I’d imagine that Weird Horror circles are interested in and open to mainstream horror, more so than the other way around. In any event, my grandmother gave me her copy of Christine when I was 13 years old or so. I loved it, was completely taken with it. I gradually accumulated more King books as a teenager. My first thought upon reading the seminal Night Shift collection: I would love to write horror like this. My second thought, a millisecond after the first, was: I could never, ever write horror like this. King’s talent and range and imagination was and is extremely intimidating. Is he relevant today? Absolutely. Revival is a work of modern weird with a heavy Machen influence, and is also a novel that drags in you and pulls you through it, a couldn’t-put-it-down novel. I’ve encountered good Weird Horror novels, but it’s rare that I find one that I can’t stop reading. Sure, he has his bad books, and his overlong books, and he’s provided rapturous blurbs for some real dud novels, but it’s really hard to fault him. He loves horror and has really dragged it into mainstream culture without sanitizing it or watering it down. He’s a powerhouse – to my way of thinking he is, and should be, relevant to everyone in every corner of the genre.

You have been blessed with having some amazing artists do work for your books. From Dave Felton to Aeron Alfrey, I have really enjoyed the art used as cover art and interior illustrations that have accompanied your publications. But what are your thoughts on having an artist render scenes from your works into a visual medium? Do you feel that an illustration can sometimes miss what you are going for and do you worry about that? And do you feel that they can maybe add something to your prose, maybe illuminating something that you did not yourself see?

 I can only be grateful to the artists I’ve worked with, and to people who’ve sent me fan art unsolicited. They don’t match what I have in my imagination – how could they? Each piece of artwork is the artist’s vision, and when an artist is inspired by something I did, I’m just flat out gobsmacked and thankful. It’s funny, though, when I see graphic adaptations of work by Lovecraft and Ligotti, say, they rarely resonate with me, because they are extremely different from what I pictured in my head. For some reason when I see visual adaptations of my own stuff, that doesn’t matter to me one whit. And yes, sometimes they do work that brings something out I hadn’t seen or considered before. I believe I used the figures from Aeron Alfrey’s Rangel cover…figures he came up with on his own…in a story I wrote after I saw it. Aeron, Dave Felton, Nick Gucker, Michael Bukowski, Yves Tourigny, and others…these are people with incredible talent. It’s a gift to work with them. When I was writing the stories that ended up in Gateways, I never imagined that ten, twelve years down the line I’d be seeing art based on what I was writing. It never fails to excite me.

If you could go back in time, and take three stories from any author, alive or dead, and claim them as your own, what three stories would you take?

 Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls, Mannequins in Aspects of Terror by Mark Samuels, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger. I already have about forty more in my head. I’m tempted to keep going.

So what’s next? Any upcoming projects you would like to talk about?

 I’m working on the serial still, and I have a few chapters of a third WXXT/Leeds book in a folder on my computer. I have a few ideas for collections down the road, including a collection of Lovecraft satires, a collection by a fictional author (with me writing the introduction), and a more traditional collection I’d like to have out in 2019 or 2020, one for which I hope to find a publisher. I also have a tentative plan to do something unique, another collaboration with artist/game designer Yves Tourigny—it’s still only in the idea stage, but if it comes to pass, I think people will really like it.

New Interview: Lewis Richmond



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Today we have on The Plutonian an exciting new horror writer, Lewis Richmond! Lewis is about to release a new short story collection called The Wisdom of Silenus and Other Strange Tales from Dunhams Manor Press. This will be his first published collection and I am sure it will not be his last.


It must be exciting having your first collection coming out soon! Can you talk a little about why you decided to write fiction? Do you see yourself as a ‘horror’ author? Or are you interested in writing in a wide range of genres?

Thank you. I’m glad to be doing an interview, something I never would’ve imagined taking place. I’m also grateful for Jordan Krall’s (from Dunhams Manor Press) willingness to publish my debut collection.  
    I don’t mind being called a “horror” writer, although the label is a broad one. I personally prefer the term “Gothic,” but that might be too narrow for some people. To be honest, I didn’t discover the beauty of horror fiction until late. I had some prior experience with the genre itself when I was younger. I read some of Lovecraft’s work as well as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, but my understanding of it was superficial at the time. I ended up taking a lengthy detour through philosophy before I eventually arrived where I am today. I initially wanted to pursue an academic career, doing some form of scholarly work in both hermeneutics and narrative theory; however, personal setbacks derailed what I thought was my calling. My undergraduate GPA, while not necessarily bad, was less than ideal for attending a suitable graduate program, a problem caused primarily by depression. Luckily, I encountered a quote by someone by the name of Thomas Ligotti in the opening of Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Shortly afterward I ended up selling most of my philosophy books and decided to devote my time to writing fiction. I don’t regret my decision.

The first thing that struck me after finishing the collection, was how classical the structure of the stories were. In terms of style they really could have been written in 1918. They remind me of maybe Le Fanu stories or E. F. Benson works. The Wisdom of Silenus is full of stories of strange night time visitors, bizarre transformations, and somnambulist descents into darkness. But the collection does not share the more moralistic trappings of classic weird horror. I would say that it follows a more post-Ligottian depressive or abysmal viewpoint. What stories/authors would you say were influences on your writing?

The only story I’ve read of E. F. Benson’s is “The Room in the Tower,” which I thought was a wonderful example of a classical ghost story. I’ve yet to read anything from Le Fanu. But I think it’s fair to say I’m influenced by quite a few writers, the most prominent being Ligotti. I was already sympathetic towards Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview before I discovered the work of Ligotti, so it was exciting for me to encounter certain parallels between the two. Ligotti also enabled me to understand the cosmic horror behind Lovecraft’s work. Whether good or bad, Ligotti has a sort of looming presence in weird fiction (another acceptable label). There’s a certain anxiety associated with approaching anything he’s written, at least for me. As far as the “classics” are concerned, Poe and Lovecraft have also been major influences on my writing. Ambrose Bierce, especially his delightful cynicism, is certainly there as well. Some contemporary writers (not including Ligotti) I admire include Mark Samuels, Jon Padgett, and Christopher Slatsky. There are certainly more out there, but it would be silly to compile a long list.
    You used the word “abysmal” to describe my work, which is perhaps appropriate. Intellectually speaking, I’m a pessimist who’s inclined to believe that existence is an ontological mistake. I can’t prove that such is the case, but I believe I’m entitled to the experiential data I’ve accumulated over the years. While religion is a sensitive subject for me, I will say that I sympathize with the philosophical doctrines of Buddhism as well as Christianity. The latter is reflected in my fascination with the so-called “problem of evil,” something which is dealt with sporadically throughout The Wisdom of Silenus. Having said that, I don’t think philosophical (or even religious) pessimism is an intrinsic feature of weird fiction as a whole. There are various competing worldviews available to writers working within the genre; I’m simply open about where I stand with regard to the matter. Of course, I hope someone who doesn’t share my own worldview can enjoy the book for reasons unrelated to its candid philosophy.  

I grew up waiting for horror films to show up on late night cable and searching video stores for strange and dark thrills. I think in this era it’s hard to not have been affected by horror cinema. Would you consider horror cinema to have influenced you at all?

I don’t think it’s possible to not be influenced by horror cinema. When I was much younger, I was always fascinated by the movie Alien, especially Giger’s beautiful biomechanoid “villain.” More recently, I’ve come to admire the work of Guillermo del Toro; both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are fantastic films, not to mention superb examples of what a “weird” story should look like on the big screen. This shouldn’t be surprising given that del Toro himself is an astute admirer of writers such as Lovecraft and Machen.

Do you think writers have a responsibility to be socially conscious? Do you feel that a writer should always be engaging with social issues or does a writer not have a responsibility to society? Or should a writer be able to write just for literature's sake?

I think everyone has certain moral obligations. However, I don’t personally believe a writer must include his or her own socio-political views in the stories they write. They certainly can, but it’s not a moral requirement. In other words, it’s possible for both the political and the aesthetic realms to overlap, but it’s also possible for them to occupy their own respective space. Speaking as a pessimist, I think every socio-economic system is intrinsically flawed, so I don’t place a great deal of faith in “society.” Again, we all have moral obligations, but the idea of moral development occurs, I believe, primarily on the level of the individual. I think a lot about injustice, but I believe it’s so prominent because the world itself is built on suffering and oppression, metaphysically speaking. When we attempt to engage in political action or discourse, we are (usually) unknowingly trying to address metaphysical problems which don’t really have practical solutions. There’s a certain “tragic” aspect to the socio-political realm for this reason.

Why is the horror genre important to you? Should the horror genre be taken seriously or is it just entertainment?

I find the genre to be strangely cathartic. There’s a special kind of self-mastery that takes place when one presents negative phenomena aesthetically. There’s even a certain “religious” element to the process of actually writing horror, though I don’t know how to explain it adequately. I suppose it has something to do with the concept of the sublime. As far as your second question is concerned, I don’t see why horror as a genre can’t be both a worthy aesthetic pursuit on its own as well as entertainment. There’s plenty of available literature as well as movies which suggest that that’s the case.

If you could go back in time and steal three short stories from other writers, dead or alive, and claim them as your own, what stories would you take?

There are quite a few Ligotti pieces I could mention, but I suppose “Vastarien” would be the one story of his I wish I had written. Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Foundling” is another one. I’m currently trying to create my own rendition of his fantastic story, an endeavor which is probably motivated by writer’s envy. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is perhaps one of the many paradigms of weird fiction, so I feel compelled to include it as well. All three are anxiety-inducing insofar as they’re examples of what any writer working within the genre must ultimately contend with. Honorable mention would have to go to Mark Samuels’ “The White Hands,” a story I believe will be canonized as a grand example of weird fiction. Another would have to go to Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism; I think it’s cohesiveness as a collection is something any writer ought to strive for, assuming their intent is to convey a “worldview” of sorts. Ligotti himself never wrote a collection of short stories as cohesive as Padgett’s debut book.

Your stories contain a lot of musing on philosophical matters. Do you consider fiction more as a means to speculate on reality and to try to achieve a better understanding of our place in it, or is it more that reality is unknowable and fiction is a means to sort of play and come to terms with the unknowable? Or maybe something else?

I don’t believe the universe itself is a rational place, so I’m content with the notion that fiction is a way to come to grips with the unknowable. There are certain problems which neither science nor philosophy seem equipped to deal with because of the “humanism” which tends to accompany both. Historically speaking, the assumption on the part of the philosopher or the scientist is that the world is a rational totality, and that there is a correspondence that takes place between objective reality and the mind. Reason has a role to play in the daily life of human beings, but it seems ineffective when it’s applied to questions regarding the whole. This problem concerns theological questions as well. Both theism and naturalism are equally absurd to me, even though rational arguments have been proposed for both. As a writer, I’m perfectly willing to criticize both worldviews. For instance, “The Great Chain of Being” is a critique of the traditional notion of theodicy, while “Misophonia” is a critique of a more modern worldview grounded in scientism. My reason tells me that if the world was created by a transcendent being, then the entity responsible for its existence must be malevolent due to the amount of gratuitous suffering the world contains. But my reason also tells me that if the world is a closed physical system, then it must be inherently stupid. I find myself oscillating between these two options whenever I try to make sense of the world with my intellect.
    In any case, I suppose I view fiction, at least the kind of fiction I write, as an exploration of failure. In other words, it’s possible to use fiction as a way to accept the unacceptable by transforming the world into an aesthetic object without, however, discovering any definitive answers regarding why (in my case) things are so crummy.

So when can we expect The Wisdom of Silenus and Other Strange Tales to be available for purchase? And what’s next?

The Wisdom of Silenus and Other Strange Tales should be available through Dunhams Manor Press’ main website sometime late winter/early spring. Jordan Krall works as a writer, editor, and publisher of weird fiction, so some patience is needed. He’s concerned with producing high-quality work, which leads me to believe that whatever flaws the book might have will be the result of my own shortcomings. As for the present, I’ve already started working on a second collection of short stories. I’ll have a better sense of direction as far as writing projects are concerned once I see what kind of reaction my debut collection receives.