About Plutonian Press

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.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: Haunted Worlds by Jeffrey Thomas

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Today I wanted to talk about this wonderful new collection I just read of haunting and haunted tales, Jeffrey Thomas’s Haunted Worlds. This book has kind of been flying under the radar of weird horror fans and I think it deserves a brighter spotlight on it. Haunted Worlds has this wonderful and surprising diversity of content. Whatever style of the weird and dark that you like, you are sure to find something to sate your appetite in Haunted Worlds. Mr. Faun is this strange psychological tale of terror, riaL gnoL is a ghostly haunting that may hide much more, The Toll is a Outer Limits inspired scifi shocker, The Temple of Ugghiutu is a tale of dark fantasy at its finest. But I wanted to focus on the stories that fall more on the side of the nightmarish. And trust me, there are stories in here that are not safe to read in the dead of the night.

The first story in the book is a insidiously charming little number called Carrion. A mood piece about unsettling roadkill and pregnant women. The story focuses on Lambert, a man who is getting older and is just plain dissatisfied with his life. At his job he harbors a secret desire for a co-worker, all the while he is trying to work up the nerve to ask her out. On his daily drive to work he keeps seeing this rotting animal corpse on the side of the road, and obsessively keeps track of its state of decay. He fantasises on the crawling things that must be eating at the corpse, the insects that infest it. Later he finds out the coworker he longs for is pregnant. She eventually stops coming to work. This causes the story to spiral into disturbing visions of strange invasions of the body and parasitic creatures half seen emerging from the flesh. Lambert feels dead inside, and these things that feed on the dead haunt him, maybe even are inside him. Is the roadside corpse the Carrion of the title… or is Lambert?

Later in the collection, we come to The Left-Hand Pool. The Left-Hand Pool and Carrion are kind of reflections of each other. They stand apart as stories but reflect similar obsessions and fears. The Left-Hand Pool is a story about a man, just going through the motions of making a living at a soulless job he does not really care about. But, at that job, there is a woman there he would like to ask out, which gives him something to light up his droll existence. The road on his way to work crosses a body of water that has been separated by the road built going down the middle of it. Now the right hand side of the pool is seemingly a normal pool of water. But the pool on the left side is covered in slimy muck and appears to be filled with rotting things. Later on, on his drive, he sees something coming out of the filthy mire stagnant pool. Something mysterious, alien, and beautiful. Then at his job he finally gets up the nerve to ask the woman out he has been longing for. She rejects him, the smile on her face disappearing as she walks away… she has a boyfriend. Deflated he thinks back on a childhood memory of going hunting with his father and being horrified at his father killing a deer. The slow pursuit of the gunshot wounded deer stuck like a sliver in his mind, sad and disturbing. Later on, he sees the same mysterious creature emerging from the clean pool on the other side of the same track of the road. It stands taller and seems in full bloom, changed somehow, now seemingly insane and demonic. He drives home where something from his past awaits him, bringing him full circle with the horrors of his childhood. Both The Left-Hand Pool and Carrion are masterworks in strange and ambiguous horror.  

And finally I want to talk about The Green Hands Parts 1 & 2. This just may be the best story in the book. A novella divided into two sections. The first deals with a man named Zetter, who is on the run from these creepy and strange pursuers, chasing down Zetter, trying to touch him with their bizarre glowing green hands. He does not know what they want, but he does know that they bring erasure to anyone they touch. They blend in with the unknowing crowds, attacking out of nowhere. Part 1 is a tense chase narrative that ends in a madness that continues into the next part. In part 2, things really go apeshit. The story goes full throttle into a surreal cosmic fantasy that falls even further down the rabbit hole of strange hand obsessions. Interesting enough, horror stories revolving around disembodied hands have a deep history in weird horror. Tales like The Beast with Five Fingers by W. F. Harvey, The Body Politic by Clive Barker, and Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon are essential reads in this genre of hand body horror and cousins to The Green Hands. But, at its heart, I think it is best seen as a homage to William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s short stories of strange things that emerge out of the unknown to assault the protagonists like A Tropical Horror, Demons of the Sea, and Out of the Storm, and his bizarre cosmic horror novels like The House on the Borderland are landmarks in the history of weird horror fiction. Hodgson was perfectly at home writing stories full of unrelenting invading horrors and cosmically mindbending alien worlds, and you can see how they inform and influence The Green Hands. This is a major story and is really a must read. Let me put it this way, if Ligotti’s The Last Feast of Harlequin is the greatest homage to Lovecraft ever written, then Thomas’s The Green Hands is the greatest homage to Hodgson ever written.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Interview: Jeffrey Thomas

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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!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Guest Post: Adam Golaski with "Excerpts from the 'Head' Talk"

Excerpts from the “Head” Talk

Heard on the radio while out on an errand: “What we see in one scene after another, really, in this landscape—routine torture and beheadings and brutality, rape of Yazidi women who are enslaved, a child soccer game with a human head.”

from Popol Vuh (circa 1554):

One and Seven Death: Where are my cigars? What of my torch? They were brought to you last night!
One and Seven Hanahpu: We finished them, your lordship.
One and Seven Death: Very well. This very day, your day is finished, you will die, you will disappear, and we shall break you off. Here you will hide your faces: you are to be sacrificed!

And then they were sacrificed and buried. They were buried at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, as it is called. The head of One Hanahpu was cut off; only his body was buried with his younger brother.

One and Seven Death: Put his head in the fork of the tree that stands by the road.

And when his head was put in the fork of the tree, the tree bore fruit. It would not have had any fruit, had not the head of One Hanahpu been put in the fork of the tree. This is the calabash tree, as we call it today, or “the skull of One Hanahpu,” as it is said.

A Maiden, daughter of Blood Gatherer: I’m not acquainted with the tree they talk about. Its fruit is truly sweet, I hear.

Next, she arrived where the tree stood. It stood at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice.

A Maiden, daughter of Blood Gatherer: What? Well! What’s the fruit of this tree? Shouldn’t this tree bear something sweet? They shouldn’t die, they shouldn’t be wasted. Should I pick one?

And then the bone spoke; it was here in the fork of the tree.

The Head of One Hunahpu: Why do you want a mere bone, a round thing in the branches of a tree? You don’t want it.
A Maiden, daughter of Blood Gatherer: I do want it.
The Head of One Hunahpu: Very well. Stretch out your right hand here, so I can see it.

And then the bone spit out its saliva, which landed squarely in the hand of the maiden.

The Head of One Hunahpu: It is just a sign I have given you, my saliva, my spittle. This, my head, has nothing on it—just bone, nothing of meat. It’s just the same as the head of a great lord: it’s just the flesh that makes the face look good. And when he dies, people get frightened by his bones.

Right away, something was generated in [the maiden’s] belly, from the saliva alone, and this was the generation of Hanahpu and Zbalanque.

from “The MFA’s Small Masterpieces”

… If the act of noticing is the museum-goer’s sixth sense, this display is a good first test. How many visitors who are attracted by the glitter of pre-Columbian gold notice that one of the small Muisca votive figures is carrying a tiny human head? This art was made by headhunters.

Aside from this gruesome fact very little is known about the Muisca, a tribe that thrived for centuries before the Spanish Conquest in what is now Colombia. It is not known to what ritual use these superbly crafted votive figures were put, although one theory is that the Muisca believed that gold was magic. …

A good shoemaker can eye a foot and know its requirements; the shoemaker who lived in Gerbert (circa 1181 C.E.) was good. Also, he was evil. When he saw the foot of a royal daughter he proposed to her. “No,” she said. Like, obviously. She was royal. He became a knight to impress her. She was not impressed. To avenge himself, he became a pirate, and harassed the royal daughter’s kingdom. When she died, he opened her grave and fucked her corpse. About to leave the open hole, he heard a voice: “You’re a father.” The fruit of the shoemaker’s lust was a nightmare head. Don’t look at it! The shoemaker put it in a box. When his second wife, the daughter of the emperor of Constantinople, learned what was in the box, she knew her husband was evil. Her guard tossed the shoemaker and then his box into the Grecian Ocean. The nightmare head spat: its voice is a whirlpool called Satalie.

Cold Calls, Christopher Logue’s “account” of books 7 – 9 of The Iliad, describes the beheading of Nyro of Simi “the handsomest of all the Greeks, save A,” by Aeneas. Aeneas’ “minder,” Mowgag, puts the head on a pike; “the chingaling of its tinkers”—the bells that Nyro wove into his braids—a gruesome instrument. But Nyro’s head speaks otherwise: “Athena yells” “through poor Nyro’s wobbling mouth”: “Slew of assiduous mediocrities! / Meek Greeks / Hector will burn your ships to warm his soup!”

Neil Corcoran writes, “[Christopher] Logue invents strange, un-Homeric names of, to me, uninterpretable significance. These become more plentiful as the sequence progresses… Cold Calls introduces, among others, Deckalin, Mowgag, Meep and Nyro.”

My family left Marion, Massachusetts in 1982. We would’ve stayed longer if not for—. Zhuangzi used a human skull for a pillow. In Zhuangzi’s dreams, the skull mocked him and said, “I can tell you what it’s like to be dead. It’s happiness.” Throughout ’81 – ’82, I dreamed about a human head, crab-eaten flesh, empty eye-sockets. I was just a little boy. The head said to me, “Wake up wake up wake up!” My parents sang to me, they served me warm milk, they let me sleep between them, but though I clutched a stuffed lion, that head woke me every night until we finally moved.

from “The Screaming Skull” by F. Marion Crawford

“He was found dead on the beach one morning, and there was a coroner's inquest. There were marks on his throat, but he had not been robbed. The verdict was that he had come to his end ‘By the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown,’ for half the jury thought it might have been a big dog that had thrown him down and gripped his windpipe, though the skin of his throat was not broken. No one knew at what time he had gone out, nor where he had been. He was found lying on his back above high-water mark, and an old cardboard bandbox that had belonged to his wife lay under his hand, open. The lid had fallen off. He seemed to have been carrying home a skull in the box—doctors are fond of collecting such things. It had rolled out and lay near his head, and it was a remarkably fine skull, rather small, beautifully shaped and very white, with perfect teeth.”

from The Arabian Nights

Sage: I have a book called The Secret of Secrets, which I should like to give you for safekeeping in your library.
King: What is the secret of this book?
Sage: It contains countless secrets, but the chief one is that if your Majesty has my head struck off, opens the book on the sixth leaf, reads three lines from the left page, and speaks to me, my head will speak and answer whatever you ask.
King: Is it possible that if I cut off your head and, as you say, open the book, read the third line, and speak to your head, it will speak to me? This is the wonder of wonders.”

The next day the sage Duban entered the royal palace carrying an old book and a kohl jar containing powder. He sat down, ordered a platter, and poured out the powder and smoothed it on the platter.

Sage: Take this book, your Majesty, and don’t open it until after my execution. When my head is cut off, let it be placed on the platter and order that it be pressed on the powder. Then open the book and begin to ask my head a question, for it will answer you.
King: I must kill you, especially to see how your head will speak to me.

Then the king took the book and ordered the executioner to strike off the sage’s head. The executioner drew his sword and, with one stroke, dropped the head in the middle of the platter, and when he pressed the head on the powder, the bleeding stopped. Then the sage Duban opened his eyes.

Sage: Now your Majesty, open the book.
King: Sage, I see nothing written in this book.
Sage: Open more pages.

from The Boston Sunday Globe, May 3, 1981:

Human head found

MARION, MA. An investigation was continuing yesterday to determine the identity of a human head found at Silver Shell Beach by a local boy, a state medical examiner said.

Dr. Ann Dixon said authorities were trying to identify the head by matching teeth with dental records.

The head was found Thursday by a local boy playing in the beach grass near the recreation house. The beach was closed through Friday.

Sources: Weekend Edition, NPR, Sept. 16, 2017; Popol Vuh. Translated by Dennis Tedlock. New York: Touchstone, 1995; Garrett, Robert. “The MFA’s Small Masterpieces.” The Boston Globe Calendar, June 27, 1985;  Ashe, Laura. Early Fiction in England: from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer. London: Penguin Classics, 2015;  Logue, Christopher. War Music. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2015; Corcoran, Neil. Poetry & Responsibility. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014; Simon, Peter J. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002; Crawford, F. Marion. Uncanny Tales. North Yorkshire: Tartarus Press, 2009; Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Arabian Nights. Translated by Husain Haddawy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010; “Human head found,” The Boston Sunday Globe, May 3, 1981.