This is not a review. Having finished Brian Evenson’s A COLLAPSE OF HORSES (Coffee House Press, 2016), I find myself thinking about how much or how little footing writers can grant their readers. A great many writers, especially genre writers, aim to provide a good amount of footing for their readers, by which I mean that even in the most bizarre moments of a character’s encounter with the unknown, the reader is comfortable with their knowledge that what the character sees is more-or-less what is before him or her. The character’s experiences are true. Yet, with Evenson’s work, I find that footing not just minimized but often removed completely. This isn’t dream-logic, where the connections between moments are subconscious, but rather a wholesale implied state of disreality, where it’s impossible to understand what is real for the characters at all. Can a story succeed when it’s impossible to know this truth? Apparently so, as Evenson does so here time and time again. Funny enough, one of the most straightforward tales in the book is “A Seaside Resort”, the story I selected for AICKMAN’S HEIRS. The story had to be more concretized to make it hew closer to Aickman. It’s fascinating stuff. I know not everyone reading this sort of liminal fiction is a writer, but speaking as a writer it’s of the utmost value to me to read a work that makes me reconsider my tools and how I might deploy them differently. Fiction that reminds or clarifies just what the written word can do. That sort of fiction you keep close, bury it inside you in hopes one day it will sprout into something wondrous.
My story “Doused by Night” appears for the first time this month in the anthology, LOOMING LOW (Dim Shores, 2017).
Sometimes a story requires a lot of massaging and consideration before I can even start to write it, and sometimes even after that work the story requires further effort to tease out its voice and its meaning. Those stories can be tough to write, but it makes discussing them after the fact more interesting. There’s a chain of events, a rise and fall of action—in essence, the writing of the story is a story in and of itself.
Occasionally, though, there are stories that fall together somewhat easily. One sits down in front of the page and a story tumbles out. “Doused by Night” was like this, which means that my notes on the story when looking back are anemic at best. There’s just not much to tell beyond that it went through successive iterations until it reached a publishable state.
What I can say is that the goal for the story, at the outset, was to meld noir fiction and weird fiction. Despite how often we see this pairing, it never fails to amaze me how the two lenses view the world a similar way—with a deep and inherent mistrust. Noir mistrusts institutions and weird mistrusts existence, but both bristle at the forces that aim to control us. I wanted to explore this my own work, so as a seed I started with the idea of riffing on one of my favourite noir films, D.O.A., which tells the story of a man who discovers he has been incurably poisoned, and aims to solve the mystery of his murder in the final day he has left to live. It’s a great film (barely sullied by the remakes that have followed) and I thought it would make a great weird noir tale.
The only other aspect of the story that strikes me is how on occasion I’ll discover a story doesn’t intend to finish where I initially anticipated. Where I thought this story was headed turned out to be a different place altogether, which is never not exciting, just as it’s never not terrifying to experience. The only way to make it through is to forge ahead and find the spot where everything that needs telling gets told. The art can be in figuring out exactly where that spot is.
This August 17th through 20th I’ll be making my biennial pilgrimage down to Providence, Rhode Island, to participate in the programming for NecronomiCon, the International Festival of Weird Fiction, Art and Academia, as I’ve done every year since its founding.
This year marks an exciting change at the conference. Whereas in previous years the panels and talks have been focused primarily on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his influences and influencers, this year the committee has chosen to open the topics to those more encompassing of the Weird, the Fantastic, the Fabulist. In short, what was once a convention for one subculture now encompasses many, and much like the fiction it celebrates, the conference finds itself filled with artists and topics that fit neither wholly within the World Horror Convention, or the World Fantasy Convention. It sits between them (even temporally, considering the time of year).
All this is to say it promises to be an exciting adventure for all those who attend.
As I mentioned, I’ll be there as part of the programming. The below outlines those events I’m committed to, but I’ll also be lurking the hallways of the various locales and ducking into the multitude of interesting panels throughout the weekend.
Without further ado, my schedule for the upcoming event:
- Friday August 18th – 3:00-4:15pm: Shadows and Tall Trees Launch Party
L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Robert Levy, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Michael Kelly, where I’ll be reading a short excerpt from my story “In the Tall Grass”.
- Saturday, August 19th – 6:00-7:15pm: Looming Low Launch Party
L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Michael Griffen, Livia Llewellyn, Anya Martin, Michael Wehunt, Justin Steele, and Sam Cowan, where I won’t be reading but instead hovering and showing my support as a contributor to the book.
- Sunday, August 20th – 9-10:15am FABULISM IN CONTEMPORARY WEIRD FICTION
Garden Room, Biltmore 2nd Floor, with Craig Gidney, J.T. Glover, Kij Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Peter Straub, where I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on what Fabulism is and how it affects modern weird and strange horror fiction.
- Sunday, August 20th – 3:00-4:15pm THE BLEAK OBLIQUE: Aickman’s Influence on Contemporary Horror
Grand Ballroom, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Michael Cisco, Paul Di Filippo, Jack Haringa, and Steve Rasnic Tem, where I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on the work and life of Robert Aickman, one of the major influences on contemporary strange fiction.
I hope everyone who attends finds these discussions and events illuminating, and enjoys the full range of fantastic programming. I look forward to seeing you all there.
The field of horror (or weird, or dark fantasy, or whatever you’d like to call it) has grown tremendously over the last decade or so. When questioned for my opinion on why, I used to put the blame squarely on the rise of the internet, and while I do believe technology and the way is has changed (and continues to change) every aspect of our lives is a contributor that can’t be overlooked, I also think there’s something more going on. We’re experiencing that cyclical return of readers who find some comfort in the dark, and I think that’s driven as much by the talent in the field as it is by readers searching for that talent. They feed off one another.
Everyone has a different writer they point to when they say “This one. This writer showed me what horror could be.” Sometimes they’re old masters, sometimes they’re new (and maybe-one-day masters) but what really sets them apart is their outlook on the work. It’s different. Different from what others have done, different from what their contemporaries are doing. Sometimes these different voices are recognized immediately by the masses, sometimes by no one at all, but they’re there. They are always there, working. Slowly chipping away at building a body of work that it uniquely their own.
In the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction than I have since the business of writing consumed me. In that time, I’ve tried to read a cross-section of different work, some from fledgling writers, some from writers who have been at it longer than I’ve been alive. A lot of the work, as good as it is, reads the same. The way the writers see the world, the way they relate it to the reader, is similar, even if the sorts of stories they tell are different. Every era, I think, has a distinct voice, one that you can’t necessarily detect as it happens, but on reflection is so clearly of its time. A lot writers, most writers, working today work in that common voice.
And, then, there’s Richard Gavin.
I don’t like talking about Richard’s work. He and I have been friends for a number of years, and sometimes I fear how it might appear when I mention it. We all know writers who cannot stop pimping their friends, over and over, at every opportunity. I never want to appear to be that kind of writer. However, every once in a while, I feel motivated to break my silence and discuss why Richard and I are friends. It has a lot of do with personality, this is true, but it has even more to do with the sheer respect and awe I have for—and of—Richard’s work. Since before I formally knew him, it has both surprised and inspired me. Richard’s work is not like anyone else’s working today, and SYLVAN DREAD (Three Hands Press, 2016), his latest collection (available in paperback from Amazon right now) is a prime example of why. Every way one could describe the work describes its contents as well—ancient, dark, gnostic, awful, mesmerizing, hallucinogenic, mysterious. These are beautiful tales of shadowed borders, culminating in a novella that is one of those tales that alters you irreparably. This book… this book is so far removed from the every day horrors that line our shelves that it almost seems impossible it could exist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. It’s funny: there’s a photo of the hardback version of the book somewhere on the internet without its dust jacket, and the daylight is reflecting off the gold embossed boards, giving the book and ethereal quality. It’s apt, considering its contents.
It’s a strange time to be a horror writer: there is so much stacked against you, from other forms of communication to a wealth of entertainment options that can distract you from the terrors of just living. But even in their multitudes, few of them will actively work to rewire and awaken you. SYLVAN DREAD makes that attempt. I can’t guarantee it will work for you as it does for me, but I sincerely hope it does. I hope you buy it; I hope you read it; and I hope it makes you a different person than you are now. Things, they always look different when you are finally awake. Let’s hope for the better.
SHADOWS & TALL TREES, VOL. 7 (Undertow Publications, 2017), edited by the fantastic Michael Kelly, is now shipping, and it contains a new story from me entitled, “In the Tall Grass”.
When I first started the story, it was 1992, and I was thinking less about being a writer than I was about anything. I had only just left high school, and was unsure what I wanted from life. I knew I wanted to create things, but didn’t know if it would be through prose or pencils or paints or any of the myriad of mediums available to me. So, I indulged in them all to one degree or another, filling notepads with doodles and drawings and random snippets of poorly written prose and even more poorly written poetry. It was in one of these latter poems that I first dreamed about a sad parent and their tree-shaped boy.
Over the next few years, I added more and more to this story, layering short paragraphs on to it as though it were a papier-mâché sculpture. It never extended more than a few pages in length, but at the time it was my greatest and most involved project. Eventually, I started testing it in other mediums, creating paintings and drawings that might somehow capture the bittersweet story I hoped to tell, but never managed to.
Eventually, I left it behind. I didn’t forget about it, not really, but it became a story I told myself I would one day tell, if only I figured out how. And so it languished in the notebooks of my youth, patiently slumbering.
When Michael Kelly approached me about the return of SHADOWS & TALL TREES, and invited me to send him a story, I knew I needed something different from the cosmic weird fiction I’d written for my previous collection. Michael and S&TT needed something stranger and more fantastic than that, and it didn’t take me long to remember I had a story already partially written, one that had all the elements I knew he would like. All I needed to do, I was confident, was brush it up, add an ending, and it would be ready to go.
As is often the case with such plans, they went horribly wrong very quickly, starting from the beginning when I re-read what I’d written so many years previous and discovered how little of it was useable. In fact, now that the story has been told, I see I saved only a few lines from that original text. Around it, the story grew and branched in ways I didn’t expect, much like the boy at the centre of the tale. I also managed to fit in a scientific explanation for his state, something I’d stumbled across a few years ago and knew instantly what to do with.
“In the Tall Grass”, like many of my stories, is a story of loss. But I also think it’s a story of hope, and overcoming. And of coming to understand one’s place in the world. I’m proud it found a home in SHADOWS & TALL TREES, and I hope you buy a copy of the journal so you might read it, and read all the other wonderful work between its covers.