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Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Author As Plague Vector.

The end of World War Two seems to have helped affect a fundamental shift in horror fiction. Whereas pre-WW2, writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and M.R. James were attempting to find the perfect form for their horrors, the most effective way to send shivers down the spine of their readers or to showcase otherworldly horrors in their fiction. It was a period of experimentation, with a focus on craft and form. After the war, horror fiction turned inward. Less concerned with matters of form and more concerned with the why we choose to read horror fiction. It turned more existential, it looked inward and thought about why it exists and what purpose it serves. Why are we attracted to horror fiction? Why do we write horror fiction? Authors like Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, and Shirley Jackson brought horror from desolate gothic landscapes and alien spheres and brought it to our own backyards. The subject matter was no longer what lurks out there in the dark, but what lurks in our own minds. In the postwar years, a vast gaping black hole was revealed to be laying in the heart of modern society, and notions of the basic goodness of humanity were brought into question. The horror genre was the best suited to explore the depth and width of that black hole.

In all of the metafictions and social commentaries to come out of this new wave of horror fiction, one of the most interesting and illuminating forms is the one that shows the horror writer as a spreader of contagion, a corrupting influence. Maybe the writing of horror is an evil act? And what compels readers to want to consume fiction that is actually harmful to them? In exploring this topic we will look at three samples of this trope, Fritz Leiber's Diary in the Snow, Karl Edward Wagner’s Sticks, and Mark Samuels’s Vrolyck.

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Fritz Leiber’s story Diary in the Snow, published in his collection Night’s Black Agents in 1947, is one of the first works to use the horror author as contagion trope. Fritz Leiber was a master at showing the haunting and haunted nature of the modern world. From ghosts made of shoot and ash to sentient and scheming fossil fuels, Fritz Leiber almost single-handedly modernized the traditional ghost story. Diary in the Snow follows Thomas Alderman, a struggling writer, as he stays with a fellow writer, John Vendle, at an isolated cabin. Both have traveled there to try to get some writing done, and Thomas feels he is on the breakthrough of a major story. A fantastic science fiction story centering around a dead world orbiting around a dying sun, it is inhabited by these strange spider like beasts who are slowly dying from cold and hunger. They are desperate to escape their doomed world. Their sun is shrinking smaller and smaller and the world is trapped in a eternal night. These beings have developed tremendous psychic powers, and are attempting to use them to find a way out of their death spiral. John wants to have these creatures invade the Earth, and has many creepy scenes planned out for their eventual invasion. But he can not figure out how to get them from their dark world to the Earth. So he sits in the cabin, writing, trying to come up with a way. John realizes far too late that maybe his visions may be real.

In Diary in the Snow, the alien creatures use the author as a means to invade Earth, the protagonist being an unwitting victim of their scheme. He merely wanted to write a great horror science fiction story, but his visions of hideous spider things came to life. In this story, while the fiction may carry corruption, the author is an unwitting agent of this corruption. The next two stories we look at do not show horror fiction to be so innocent.

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In Karl Edward Wagner’s story Sticks, published in his collection In a Lonely Place in 1983, we have one of the finest examples of a backwoods gothic in all of horror literature, taking place in the desolate woods of Upstate New York. An artist who specializes in horrific art, Colin Leverett, is taking a walk through the forests when he stumbled across these strange wooded lattices. Made of sticks and twine, they infest the inner woods. He is struck by how macabre this all is and quickly sets pen to paper, drawing them in his notepad. He then finds a house, long abandoned, and inside he discovers hundreds of diagrams for these insane stick lattices. He is intrigued by this house and sets to exploring it. Down in the shadow covered basement, he discovers something darker still, something nightmarish beyond even his darkest dreams. Something that leaves Colin a changed man, a haunted man.

Years later Colin comes back to his home after serving in the Great War. A quiet and antisocial man, Colin returns to drawing, hoping to get some gigs drawing book covers. But his work has taken a troubling turn, his work is too disturbing for most publishers. He has trouble finding work. Luckily a small press reaches out to Colin. They are publishing a major retrospective of the great horror author H. Kenneth Allard. They like Colin’s darker take and want to find a disturbing vision for the cover art that can match the cosmic horrors of H. Kenneth Allard. Colin plunges into this work with renewed vigor and returns back to his drawings of those stick structures he found in the woods many years ago. He had hidden away those sketches, not wanting to bring back the memory of that nightmare he lived through all those years ago. With these drawings, come fresh memories of the horrors he encountered in that abandoned house. But he funnels those feelings into his work, producing gloriously dark art for the covers. But strange events start occurring, friends dying in mysterious manners, and people coming back into his life that should be dead. In one of the great shock twist endings, H. Kenneth Allard is actually in league with the dark forces Colin encountered in the woods, and it turns out the stick lattices where actually a language to summon dark beings into our reality, and Colin’s work reproducing these for the covers, has finished the incantation, the final key to allowing these dark gods into our reality.

In Sticks, again we have horror as contagion, but while Colin may not have meant to bring about the apocalyptic events of the tale, it must be noted, he does seem to keep returning again and again to the horrors. While he may protest, maybe subconsciously Colin wanted the horrors, and to finally willfully succumb to them. In Sticks, we have the artist as a secret willing victim, and carrier, of horror.

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Now we turn to Mark Samuels’s story Vrolyck, published in his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales in 2003, which is one of the great works of the current era of horror fiction. A mysterious writer who frequents an all-night cafe to find solitude and sit in his corner and write. One evening a young woman named Emily Curtis notices him and becomes intrigued by this solitary figure. She walks up to him and introduces herself. Seeing as how she is willful and not going to go away, he reluctantly allows her to sit with him. She is fascinated by his status as a writer of obscure horror fiction. She is also a lifelong fan of dark and pessimistic fiction. He offers to let her read a rough manuscript of a piece he is working on. She gladly accepts and he excuses himself to leave. They meet again, this time Emily is visibly disturbed from reading his work. She has been having strange visions and thoughts after reading his manuscript. She is both frightened and obsessed by what is happening to her. She wants more from Vrolyck, but he bars her from seeing him, making it clear that he is going to permanently separate himself from her. After a couple weeks he goes back to check on her, the corrupting text has done its work. Her mind and body are broken and ready for the next stage in his plan. It is revealed that Vrolyk is actually not human, the vanguard of an alien race drifting the cold abyss of space seeking to enter new bodies to continue their existence. Vrolyck’s writings are used to break down the reader's sanity, thereby allowing an alien force to enter and take over the minds and bodies of those who read his work. But the last horror is this story is saved for the writer, Vrolyk is trapped in this stinking, fluid-filled, ape-like body. Vrolyk is horrified at the human form it is forced to live in.

In Vrolyck, we have the full revelation that the other stories were only hinting at. Horror as a corrupting dark force, and the reader as willing victim. Maybe horror fiction is founded on masochistic drives. To show us the alien and bizarre, and for us to realize there is nothing more alien and bizarre than our own existences. The desire to corrupt, and be corrupted with this knowledge. To look at yourself in horror, and to make a poetry from this abjection.

Monday, April 23, 2018

HV Hyche's Film Review: Beyond The Darkness.

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Searching for the ultimate weird horror film? Well, look no further! Joe D'Amato's 1979 Italian horror film, BEYOND THE DARKNESS (also known as BUIO OMEGA), is a trip down the weird horror rabbit hole. It is an insane gore-fest about a wealthy orphan who practices taxidermy (and not just on animals!) and the borderline incestuous relationship between him and the housekeeper who raised him after his parents died. It is shocking, trashy, and in my opinion, incredibly underrated in the world of Italian horror films. It even features a soundtrack by Goblin! What more could you ask for? The film is a remake of Mino Guerrini's 1966 film, THE THIRD EYE, and the story for BEYOND THE DARKNESS actually came from Guerrini's son, Giacomo Guerrini. However, THE THIRD EYE has nothing on the weird gross-out epic that is BEYOND THE DARKNESS.

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BEYOND THE DARKNESS follows wealthy taxidermist Frank Wyler's (played by Kieran Canter) very sick and twisted life after the sudden death of his fiancé, Anna Volkl (Cinzia Monreale). Moments before Anna's death, we learn that Frank's devoted yet jealous housekeeper, Iris (Franca Stoppi), practiced voodoo to kill poor Anna. Unaware of what Iris did, Frank is utterly devastated by Anna's death. Therefore, he seeks comfort in Iris. She speaks to him in a soothing, maternal manner as she unbuttons her blouse, exposing her breasts. Frank begins to suckle on her nipple as she calls him her "baby boy." Creepy? You bet. Before Anna's funeral, Frank is allowed to have privacy with the body to say his goodbyes. However, while alone, Frank injects Anna's body with a syringe full of a liquid that taxidermists use to preserve the bodies of dead animals. Frank was unaware that an employee of the funeral home witnessed the entire thing,

After the burial, Frank unearths Anna's freshly buried casket, pries it open with a crowbar, and takes her body. On the way back to his house, Frank is faced with the first of many obstacles in his descent into madness. He gets a flat tire, is offered help from a police officer who just happened to be driving by, and picks up a pushy hitchhiker named Jan (Lucia D'Ella) all while his dead fiancé lies in the back of his van. Jan falls asleep, and Frank takes Anna's corpse to the basement, which doubles as his taxidermy workshop. This is perhaps the most disgusting and gory scene in the entire film (which says a lot - believe me). Frank removes her organs, and there are close-up shots that actually show him cutting her flesh and her guts (a pig was used to achieve this effect and to make it look as realistic as possible, and they definitely succeeded). Frank then removes the last organ: Anna's heart. Before disposing of it, he takes a large bite, savoring every second of it. Yikes. Jan, the hitchhiker, wakes up in Frank's van and enters this house of horrors. She makes her way into Frank's basement workshop and immediately panics when she sees Frank working on Anna's corpse. Jan becomes the first of many victims whom Frank feels could potentially jeopardize his future with the newly "stuffed" and lifeless Anna. As with all of Frank's future victims, Iris helps him dispose of Jan's body, but not before giving him the creepiest hand job of all time.

Later, the man from the funeral home who witnessed Frank injecting Anna with the mysterious liquid shows up at Frank's house to snoop around while trying to pass as a taxidermy enthusiast and collector. His stay is a brief one, but he leaves even more convinced that Frank is behind the disappearance of Anna's body. [Note: from now on, I will remain vague, so I do not include any major spoilers] After killing yet another girl, Frank's strange and violent behavior finally catches up with him when a surprise guest shows up at his doorstep, unannounced. Shortly after the guest's arrival, she faints when she discovers Anna's corpse, which has been moved into a seated position in a rocking chair. The loyal Iris then appears to kill the mystery guest to protect Frank's secret. However, Frank stops Iris from doing the deed, and this leads to a true battle royale between both parties. It is epic - a fight to end all fights. There is eye-gouging, face-biting, and even crotch-stabbing. The last scene of the film is brief and incredibly shocking and effective without being graphic or vomit-inducing.

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BEYOND THE DARKNESS was filmed in only two weeks in the summer of 1979 in Bressanone, a town in northern Italy (some interior shots were filmed in Rome). The film was directed by prolific filmmaker Joe D'Amato (also known for the Giallo film, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER along with many, many others), who also served as his own cinematographer on this film. In the 2001 documentary, JOE D'AMATO: THE HORROR EXPERIENCE, D'Amato refers to the production as a wonderful experience and says that he believes the story of BEYOND THE DARKNESS is "very beautiful." The two lead actresses, Franca Stoppi (Iris) and Cinzia Monreale (Anna) both agreed that filming was an extremely positive experience. To quote Monreale from an interview titled SICK LOVE from the Severin release of the film, "We had fun, and we were young!" Stoppi was actually unemployed when offered the part of Iris but did not read a single word of the script before signing onto the project. It's comforting to know that both actresses had pleasant filming experiences because this film could have easily been traumatizing for anyone involved - including the audience.

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It is quite rare that a film - horror or otherwise - leaves me completely speechless, but BEYOND THE DARKNESS certainly did. Though the film was heavily censored in Italy (against D'Amato's wishes) at the time of its release, I'm stunned it wasn't banned from many countries because of its graphic violence - especially against women - and that positively gruesome scene in which Frank removes Anna's organs. Don't get me wrong - I am completely against any kind of censorship, but it is downright surprising how much D'Amato and crew got away with. I love this ridiculously gory, sleaze-fest of a movie. It's exciting, bloody, and utterly nuts. Believe it or not, it also touches on the devastation of losing a loved one, the loneliness that follows, and the desire to preserve the person's memory for as long as possible (or in Frank's case, to literally preserve his fiancee as long as possible). I strongly believe this film deserves a much larger audience, despite being hard to watch at times. Fans of Italian horror or just weird films, in general, should definitely give it a chance. Thanks to label Severin, the film has been restored in HD, is totally uncut, and is available for purchase from their site. Oh, and did I mention Goblin composed the soundtrack? What are you waiting for? Pick this one up as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Film Review: Annihilation

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Future cult classic Annihilation is currently playing in theaters, and I urge everyone to go catch it before it is unfairly cut from circulation. Adapted from Jeff Vandermeer's hit novel of the same name, fans of mind-blowing and disturbing science fiction will have a lot to chew on with this film. If you have not seen Annihilation, I encourage you to stop reading this review and go see it and come back to this review later. There are minor spoilers to follow. This is not a 100% faithful adaptation, more of another artist’s reimagining of the same subject matter. In some ways it enhances the novel, wherein other ways it goes its own brave direction away from the novel. For instance, the ending of the film is almost completely different than the novel. I loved the ending of the novel, yet they somehow came up with an ending that is just as disturbing and just as earned. Both endings are just jaw-droppingly nightmarish and surreal. I think any viewers walking into this film unawares, thinking this will just be some normal sci-fi adventure film, will be in for quite a shock. Annihilation is a film full of fascinating ideas and concepts. The idea of cancer as a kind of beautiful deathwish of the organism. The obsession with black, blanked out humanoids, something it shares with Under the Skin. The self as alien. The Not-Human as Human. Annihilation is the direct descendant of mind twisting films like Videodrome and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Director Alex Garland showed a lot of promise with his first film Ex Machina, which I thought was a minor masterpiece. And with Annihilation, he delivers on that promise.

Annihilation is the latest in what I can only consider to be a second golden era of weird and dark science fiction ( the first wave I would consider to be during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s ). A preoccupation with themes dealing with doppelgangers, the subjective nature of reality, and the non-human/not us, are hallmarks of this second wave. Also, I would say, unlike such classic science fiction films like They Live or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there seems to be no shock at the reveal of the hidden reality in these new films. It’s like we as a civilization has accepted reality and our definitions of ourselves as fluid and maybe even unknowable. Maybe this is a result of how prevalent the internet and social media has become in pretty much everyone’s life? We are alienated from interacting with living beings by social media, and the internet bombards us with unreal realities every day. With the new science fiction film, it’s more of a question of what to do now that we know we live in an unreal environment? What do we do when we look around and realize that our neighbors are as strange to us as any distant planet or star? Where do we go now that notions of truth and the normal have been shown to be false? Annihilation joins a group of films that include Under the Skin, Blade Runner 2049, Enemy, and Evolution. Abstract, unsettling, and mysterious, these new science fiction films ask difficult questions and do not attempt to deceive with fake Hollywood answers. I think we need to support films like these that are not supported by mainstream audiences. These films are important and may shine a light in these difficult times.

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.  

Tuesday, November 7, 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.

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!