War and Whiskey: An Interview with S. L. Edwards

It’s an honor to bring you this latest of our long series of author interviews. In celebration of his release of Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts from Gehenna & Hinnom Books, I talked to weird fiction advocate, relentless memer, and thoroughly talented author, S. L. Edwards. Through the course of our delightful conversation, we touched on a diverse array of topics, including comics, war, and fiction’s responsibilities to history. I hope you enjoy this exchange as much as I did. Before you read on, however, be sure to preorder Edwards’ excellent debut collection. You don’t want to miss out on this momentous release.

-Justin A. Burnett

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“Fiction is a great medium for not just S. L. Edwards, […] but for writers across the world to collectively pool our feelings together. It’s a way to share, and maybe increase understanding in the process”

-S. L. Edwards

Justin A. Burnett: You now have a stunning fiction collection out with Gehenna & Hinnom Books. Besides the fact that it’s your debut release and features a diverse selection of work from your years of appearances in various publications, is there anything you’d like readers to know before they venture into the weird and wonderful world of Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts?

S. L. Edwards: I suppose the most important things that I would like them to know is: (1) it was a labor of love. I wanted my introduction to be a collection that samples a little bit of everything I have to offer. The stories were carefully selected, and I hope that pays off for a really fun reading experience. And (2) this was not a labor I undertook alone. I had a great editor in the form of Charles P. Dunphey and an eager partner in Yves Tourigny. But there were also hours of conversations, with friends, family and fellow writers. The collection would not exist without them.

I think you succeed magnificently in keeping things fun with Whiskey, but, as there must be with horror, there’s also a lot of discomfort, and much of it is deeply convincing. Do any of the recurrent themes—such as the broken childhood from which several protagonists desperately try to escape—come from your past?

That’s a good question. The short answer is “no.” My approach to horror, at least in the beginning, was to write what scared me.

I come from a relatively, if not exceptionally stable childhood. I’m the only child between my parents, and they really did do right by me. Even when they divorced, which I think is a pretty rough experience for any kid. Dad carted me all over North Texas to different comic shops. He made quesadillas on Wednesdays and watched “Ghost Hunters” with me, even though he had no interest in that. Mom was supportive, always supportive. She showed me reading was a leisure activity. And just really got interested in my hobbies.
Those themes don’t come from a place of familiarity, at least not the ones about broken homes. Even though I suppose you could say my home was “broken,” it was merely separated into two perfectly functional homes.

Now…the stories with depression. That’s a bit of a different story. That’s a reoccurring theme in the collection too. And one that I’ve had more encounters with than I would like. I’ve only recently become comfortable talking about the subject, but I’ve found there’s something vaguely empowering about acknowledging its existence.

When people do ask, I’ve always described it kind of like this: “There’s this person in the corner of the room. And they’re always there. And they’re to tell you, no matter what you do, that it’s not enough. That you’re not enough.”

That’s…that’s real enough for me. And that certainly is autobiographical in these stories.

Thank you for sharing that; It’s good practice to avoid mistaking fiction for autobiography, but what inspired that question is the amount of what Gwendolyn Kiste calls “heart” in her introduction to Whiskey, and what I’d be tempted to call “empathy.” Something tells me you are able to deeply identify with your characters. How do you achieve this identification, and how important is this imaginative empathy to your writing process?

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Part of it is lived experience. Talk to people, live with them. Go out, get your heart broken. I’m a bit naïve, I’ll admit that. I try to believe the best in people, even when it gets hard. And it’s gotten me in trouble more than once. Hurt more than once.

I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon though…

You’re right in that it’s a process. I need characters to anchor me to a story. Many writers can evoke terror, wonder, etc. through the use of powerful imagery. Lovecraft comes to mind, as someone with very flat (almost nonexistent to be frank) characters but who could just inspire such terror through his word choice.

But I’m no Lovecraft. Ultimately, I need people to help me through the process. And usually those people are the characters.

So I always do a few things before I write a story. I write a 2-3 sentence summary. I write a word count goal. And then I write a paragraph each about my main characters. I make myself care about the characters; I try to write something that gets an emotion out of me. And when I do that, the outline of the story begins to change. I try to think about what might evoke an emotional reaction of these people, and then work backwards to re-edit the story around those moments.

And this is a process, but it actually tends to go much faster when I do this kind of work. Because I write faster, and better, when I have an emotional stake in the story. And I believe that if I don’t care about my characters, readers certainly won’t. So, to answer that question, empathy is central to the process. It HAS to be.

To circle back to your earlier question and tie my answers together, the question of broken homes and childhood trauma. I gotta feel that. Because if I can’t, my readers can’t. That’s critical. I want to care about these characters before I let them go.

I like the line you draw around Lovecraft‘s work here—out of all the writer’s you’ve mentioned in other interviews, you remind me more of a Tolstoy than a Lovecraft, and I think that’s an interesting change of pace in the context of contemporary horror. If you were charged with the task of convincing horror readers to give Tolstoy a try, what would you say?

Oh God. Haha.

I suppose I would try to draw a line between horror and Tolstoy, to make the connection a bit more clear.

I’ll admit to mainly being a War and Peace guy. I tried Anna Karenina and am due to give it another chance. So keep that in mind as I go.

What I think makes horror so salient is that it inspires emotion. For all the talking down to horror writers get (I’ll never forgive a prominent reviewer, for instance, for DISMISSING Lovecraft on the grounds that he “merely” induced terror) fear is a palpable, evocative and profound emotion. Even more so when it’s dressed up, gilded with description and characters.

And War and Peace, perhaps more than any work, is a master-class in emotion. Some of that no doubt came from Tolstoy’s own background, as a former soldier and then a radical Christian philosopher (his pacifist treatise “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” still gets a bad rap from some governments). But for the reader what Tolstoy gives us is a clearer representation of the human experience, one more immersive than just a moment. We see poor Pierre Bezhukov turn from a bumbling oaf, to a radical philosopher, to man who plans to kill Napoleon. Poor Natasha Rostov falls in and out of love. And why wouldn’t she? That’s the human experience. That’s what we do.

So, if you, dear reader, are looking for works to resonate with your core, it might be healthy to look beyond fear. And I can’t think of a better work for that than War and Peace.

Maybe they don’t start there though. Maybe try a little magical realism first. I’d recommend 100 Years of Solitude before getting into the deep end of War and Peace
But I came to Tolstoy by way of Vasily Grossman, whose work Life and Fate was inspired by both his service as a Red Army correspondent and by War and Peace. That novel is…well, quite frankly it’s not for the weak. The novel certainly inspires terror, but also deep, deep heartache. Grossman lost his mother to the Holocaust, and this certainly changed him. I am not sure that I would recommend that book. It’s a hard one.

Last thing I would say is that yes, it’s important to feel more than fear. Fear most effectively functions alongside other emotions. Has more impact. And Tolstoy certainly makes his readers care about his characters.

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That was an excellent response! I particularly appreciate your second point, that horror is particularly good at doing what all great stories do: evoking emotion. While we’re here, and because I’ve always advocated an open border policy between horror and (god, here comes the awful phrase) “literary fiction,” are there any other books outside of horror you’ve drawn personal inspiration from or that a reader of horror might find especially worth reading?

I also hate that phrase. And, to demonstrate how much I hate it, I’ll answer by being as “un-literary” as possible:

I like comic books. Superheroes. Love ’em. Now, a lot of comics that I read have horror elements to them. But there’s also the smaller character moments that I treasure in things like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Teen Titans runs. And on the subject of non-supernatural horror, I would say Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a must. Dysart researched the Ugandan Civil War pretty thoroughly for that one.

So yeah, superheroes. I draw a lot of personal inspiration from superheroes. Except I wouldn’t call Dysart’s run “superhero.”

I have to admit I’m not up on comics, but not for a lack of respect or desire (the latter only recently acquired). I’m definitely going to have to check out “Unknown Soldier.” Speaking of research, you mention in your authors notes that several works in Whiskey come from historical research. Aside from adding a nice diversity to your palette of topics, what draws you to these historical narratives, and what do you think fiction can do—if anything—to help us understand or confront these events?

A lot of it comes from my day job. I research political violence, and as a fluent Spanish speaker a lot of my attention comes to Latin America.

I want to be careful though, because I can’t in good conscience say much more without it: I am a white man from the United States. I am not in a position to define anyone’s narrative, nor is that what I am trying to do. As I research though, I do have an emotional reaction to what I read. I think most of us would, and what you see in stories like “Cabras” and “Volver Al Monte” is not me making a commentary on any real, existing case, so much as my own emotional working through what I read.

Colombia is not a nation we should be characterizing by violence. Nor is Mexico, Honduras, or even Uganda. As fun as programs like Narcos can be, they’ve done some very sad damage to how we see these countries. We should not be doing that. Full stop. These are incredible places, full of wonderful people, great food, and blue happy skies.
Okay, now that disclaimer aside: I do work in historical inspirations into my stories. The “Tuta Puriq” of “Volver Al Monte” are inspired by the very real Maoist insurgency, Sendero Luminoso in Peru. “Cabras” mentions a bit of a dynastic struggle, based on the Somoza family in Nicaragua.

And to get to the latter part of that question, I think “working through” it is a very important aspect of fiction. Ultimately, I’d like to think that we are a world of empathetic people. I’d like to think it’s difficult to shrug off the suffering of another person, just because they’re not within your line of sight.

Fiction is a great medium for not just S. L. Edwards, the guy held up on his laptop going through issues of La Semana, but for writers across the world to collectively pool our feelings together. It’s a way to share, and maybe increase understanding in the process. Engaging bits of history even as inspiration can direct authors and readers to more carefully understand the dynamics that created this history and, in some cases, what perpetuates it.

Calling back what we said earlier about broken childhoods, I am not a survivor of a Civil War. I hope I never am. But I think these terrors are universal. I’d like to think, and maybe this is naïve, that sharing stories like this can get us to be careful in how we think about things like war. Is it really some heroic struggle? Or is it like Tim O’Brien said, that war stories don’t really HAVE heroes?

Which, in a way, brings us back into Tolstoy’s territory, doesn’t it? War is a universal experience, and it also represents an extremity in human behavior. I think your horror stories of war and shattered childhoods work so well together because they inhabit the outer limits of pain and suffering. They may even suggest that one pain, despite its differences, isn’t unlike another, and this realization seems to be embodied most in Manuel of “Cabras.” You mention, incidentally, that “Cabras” is your favorite piece; it’s mine as well, partially for the reasons I just mentioned. What makes it stand out to you?

It was rough to write. That one was so rough.

I think I liked it because it was the first story I wrote where I really just wanted to write it, regardless of what an editor might think. It’s heavy on exposition. I like exposition. I like writing it and I like reading it.

Also, the fun of having a truly silent main character was an interesting one. Poor Manuel…his character too, was a difficult one to get inside of. Here you have a man desperately trying to do the right thing, and yet he can’t. It’s just not an option available to him.

And then the “monsters” of the story. I won’t spoil this for potential readers, but I think one of the creepiest sequences I wrote involves something coming through the window. Yves drew the scene and just captured it perfectly. I was horrified.

All of it came together for something that, in retrospect, seems inevitable. Of course, war was going to come back to Manuel. It was foolish of him to think he could ever get away. But that desire to do right, to be good…for all the things that Manuel did, for what he was, I think there’s something to be said about someone who relentlessly tries to redeem themselves as Manuel did.

Poor bastard.

As something of a change in pace, as a Texan I’ve been wanting to ask you this: does it feel strange to be a horror writer from Texas? Do you ever feel a little “out of place?” I know I do, but I’m in the DFW area, and my day job keeps me in contact with a demographic of people who are far removed from stereotypical readers of horror. How has being from Texas defined you as a writer?

Haha. The bigger question is “how has being a Texan defined you?” We’re a gregarious, stubborn people. We’re loud, we announce ourselves. Essentially every Texan abroad is Robert Baratheon, but hopefully without the womanizing. We love Whataburger. We love our queso.

I am not sure it’s defined my writing, certainly my online presence though.

Speaking of online presence, rumor has it that you will make a meme about everyone eventually. How are you going to manage this?

These are slanderous lies. There are other better memers than me entering the field. Kevin Holderny chief among them. Matthew M. Bartlett’s cat, Larry, no longer needs me. And one day Robert S. Wilson will snap, probably fire me out of a canon.

Then it’ll be just me and Obadiah Baird. Our same dance. Him, rejecting my stories. Me, making memes about it.

And this will continue.

Forever.

It would be a pity to see you step aside to make room for fresh memes, but I begrudgingly respect your decision. As a sort of redemption, however, I’d like to point out that you also use social media to relentlessly promote other writers. Who are some authors we should be reading right now?

[Editor’s Note: I actually attempted to link the names of *every* author Edwards mentions below to a website, social media account, or Amazon page. My fingers went numb about two hours in, and I had to reconsider my plan of attack. Only books mentioned specifically by title or authors previously mentioned on this site are linked, but this indicates no personal preference of one writer over another by the editor. At this point, it’s sheer survival. I strongly recommend the reader peruse as much of this list as she can manage, however, since Edwards provides us with a veritable gold mine of weird fiction authors here.]

So, I just read Christopher Slatsky’s novella “Palladium At Night,” which was one of the coolest ‘cosmic horror’ stories I’ve ever read. You’ve got something of a NASA conspiracy mixed with this Blackwood-infused nature/terror story. A bit of Gavin-meets-Ligotti. His collection is amazing too. I think one of the most creative things I’ve read since joining on as a weird fiction writer.

I also just read Max Booth III’s Carnivorous Lunar Activities. That’s one funny story, and one with a lot of heart too.

And I’m flipping through some work by Kurt Fawver, who is one of the single most creative minds we have working in weird horror right now.

Then there’s those that need no promotion, but you never know. Matthew M. Bartlett is going to be as remembered and cherished as Lovecraft or Barron. His Leeds mythos stories are innovative, and his more traditional short fiction is just astounding.

S.P. Miskowski broke the wheel with her Skillute cycle. I hesitate to say “it’s Straub but better.” But that’s how I feel, sue me.

Gwendolyn Kiste is a treasure. We need to give her all deference not only for her astounding creativity, but just being personable and friendly as well. A genuinely good person.

Gemma Files has such an enormous body of work, but everything I’ve read I’ve just adored.

Michaeul Wehunt, of course, keeps threatening us with a new collection. He doesn’t have the guts. I’m kidding Michael, please don’t @ me. But really y’all, check out Greener Pastures if you haven’t yet.

John Langan’s Sefira and Other Betrayals came out this year and I gotta say, it may be some of his best. It’s less alien horror than say, Carnivorous Sky, but damn good nonetheless.

Nadia Bulkin changed the game. Speaking of politics and horror, she’s really rewritten the rules. She came out with a great “sports horror” story in Nightscape’s Ashes and Entropy

Betty Rocksteady’s debut collection is coming out soon. I’ve been waiting for this one for a very long time. Scott R. Jones too, who is quite a writer himself. Debut collections need all the help they can, so I’m gonna ask anyone reading this to look at those author’s amazon pages and see if they might be interested in giving their collections some pre-order love.

Jeffrey Thomas is a bit more established, but he has a collection coming out too. One that, if I remember right, is pretty high-concept. Look for that one.

Speaking of established, there’s the elite shrimp-rater himself. Peter Rawlik is known for some quality work in the Lovecraft mythos, but what you don’t know is that he has been the special guest judge in Arkham County’s annual shrimp pageant for the past two decades. The man knows his shrimp, and his way around a damn fine story.

Then there’s Brooke Warra, Fionna Maeve Geist, Farah Rose Smith, Amber Fallon, Premee Mohammad, Lena Ng, Jonathan Raab (you gotta pick up the latest books from Sheriff Cecill Kotto), Mer Whinery, Tom Breen. That whole circle. I like to see Erica Ruppert’s name in a ToC, and Alana I. Capria-Linares. Cody Goodfellow. Duane Pesice. Robert S. Wilson (who is also the editor of Nightscape).

When William Tea and John Paul Fitch bless us with their short story collections, I demand they let me write the introductions. Unless they get someone more popular. Or prettier (not possible). Then they better let me blurb it. And Christopher Ropes KNOWS that I will demand to blurb his collection. Sarah Walker too.

One of my first big writer friends, Jordan Kurella. She’s since moved on from horror into fantasy, but she’s still a good egg.

And Sean M. Thompson. That guy. Just gonzo.

Russell Smeaton, of course. When you see him a ToC, give him a chance.

And I suppose you should be reading poetry. There’s good poetry out there. KA Opperman, Ashley Dioses, D. L. Myers, Adam Bolivar constitute some secret society called “The Crimson Circle.” Scott Couterier had a poem I really liked.

And I’m sure there are some I have forgotten. I would advise then, that readers not be afraid of picking up journals. Occult Detective Quarterly, edited by John Linwood Grant. Vastarien, edited by Jon Padgett. Hinnom, edited by Charles P. Dunphy. All three of these editors are also some quality writers, and these magazines should ideally give readers and writers a pretty good sampling of what is out there. And of course, Doug Draa’s omnibus magazine Weirdbook.

Anya Martin! She combined some of my favorite things, dogs and the King in Yellow! See, there’s so many talented writers out there right now…

And Jayaprakash Satyamurty. Lynda E. Rucker. I better stop before someone gets mad at me.

Do you feel stylistically or thematically affiliated with any writers in particular? If your writing had blood relatives, who would they be?

That’s tough…and it may be a bit presumptuous of me to try and affiliate myself with more established writers.

I will say, a lot of my readers have affiliated me with Nadia Bulkin. Which is a HUGE compliment in my eyes. I can’t recommend She Said Destroy enough. And if somehow through some freakish accident one reads Whiskey, enjoys it, but has not read She Said Destroy, I urge you to drop everything and download it to your kindle.

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I think a lot of this comparison comes from the subjects that we deal with. Both of us deal with politics and political violence, but Nadia’s is more “socio-political.” She, more than any other writer, has demonstrated the power of politics in affecting everyday people. The State is not some alien entity in her fiction. It’s the air we breathe. It’s our streets. Our world. Everything inputted to us is part of this nebulous body politic.

My stories are considered “political,” in contrast, merely because my characters are given to long speeches. They themselves are often politicians, soldiers, police captains. That’s not the same as what Nadia does, in demonstrating politics.

Beyond this…I don’t know. So much of trying to come up with a place in this community is finding a niche. I certainly identify with someone like Robert Bloch, whose writing changed drastically and had an extraordinarily large breadth of writing abilities.

Yeah…maybe this one is better left to readers. Maybe they should define my place, if I deserve to have one at all.

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. It’s been a genuine pleasure interviewing you. I’ve got one more: what’s next in the world of S. L. Edwards? Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

It’s been a great opportunity! I’d say you’re pretty damn good at this.

So, I actually have two more collections in the works. The Death of An Author collects my pulpier stuff. Vampires. Lovecraft. The ilk. And Monsters of the Sea and Sky is an advancement of the themes developed in Whiskey. Half of Monsters will share a mythology, so I’m pretty excited about that one.

I’m also working to cleanse my palette a little. I’m currently working on a series of Weird Western stories, all focusing on a warlock sheriff, John Armitage. John lives in a world of vampire cave-civilizations, necromancer slave-owners, civil wars and great power politics. I’m working on a longer story in that Universe and I’ll just tease it as:

Warlock Sheriff vs. Samurais vs. Kaiju.

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Eyeballs, Angst, and Short Fiction: An Interview with Tony Rauch

Tony Rauch is an author of absurdist, whimsical, and Bizarro short fiction. I’ve enjoyed his work a lot. You can read my review of his latest collection, what if i got down on my knees?, over at Medium (originally it was reviewed at the now-defunct Adventures in SciFi Publishing): https://medium.com/@benarz13/book-review-what-if-i-got-down-on-my-knees-by-tony-rauch-b310cd5d8a47

Ben Arzate: Introduce yourself. Who is Tony Rauch?

Tony Rauch: If I’m doing my job correctly as an artist, I am a guide to previously unseen places and also a mirror reflecting the weirdness, confusion, feelings, and wonder running wild in the environment.

At other times I’m just the apple of your eye. A giant, fuzzy bunny in the guise of a man-boy who only wants to be your friend. The last potato in the bag. The electrolysis you can’t afford. That thing on your back that you should have checked out, but you don’t know it’s even there because it’s on your back. A miscellaneous collection of your regrets displayed like items at a garage sale. The dark, tilting, creaking stairway down into your failures. The elongated spore that will work its way into your subconscious to fester and will gradually buzz until you enroll in a low-budget tap dancing class. That little man in the blue suit and little hat who is always peeking at you from a distance. What finally became of Stinky Sullivan from Growing Pains. The burned-out clutch of the rusted-out orange’78 Camaro you’ll soon be living in. The guy behind the guy . . . behind . . . the guy.

I have a lot of hobbies and interests. I get around.

Ben: How would you describe your writing style?

Tony: Depends on the book. The first two were more experimental or odd fairy tale.

The third was whimsical, dreamy, surreal fantasy, sci-fi, and fairy tale adventures full of longing, discovery, escape, eeriness, surprises, and strange happenings in everyday life.

The fourth was tales of wonder and woe about people trying to find meaning and a place in an absurd, indifferent world, and their discoveries, revelations, secrets, failures, struggles, connections, and odd encounters along their way.

I’m more of an absurdist swirling genres into a new gumbo. I do this mostly for the people, and only a little for my own modest megalomania.

Ben: What are some of your biggest influences?

Tony: Rust, mud, gunk, goo, the void, your mother’s secrets, your futility, troubles, the mist, the goombees.

In terms of writing: Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” for its absurdism. Donald Barthelme for his inventiveness and ability to break out of the box and narrow confines of previously established conventions. Ray Bradbury and other sci-fi for forward thinking ideas. Richard Brautigan for his word craft and sense of play. Salinger and Fitzgerald for their sense of pacing, regret, and heartbreak.

Anything creative, imaginative and different. Anything concise and efficient. Anything that causes a reaction, that makes you think, feel, empathize. Anything that probes new possibilities, sets new boundaries, declares new freedoms from pathetic and obsolete rules.

Ben: Why write fiction?

Tony: I like ideas. Art deals with ideas, therefore I like art. I like playing around with ideas. I aspire to participate in the arts, produce art, share art, advance art. As an artist I need that periodic infusion of newness to keep life fresh and alive, so life doesn’t feel stagnant or stuck in only one thing, one gear, one vibe. Music, literature, and other fine arts infuses and replenishes me with ideas, new thoughts, new combinations. Art moves me along and open doors that I did not realize were there. And a lot of it is free – google, youtube, galleries, free little libraries, the public library, readings. All free. So an interesting diversion and investment in thought for only the cost of your time. Art forces new ideas, new combinations, new blood, new thoughts into the body, refreshing, challenging, building, and adding to your sustenance.

I like writing specifically because literature moves – it is active, not passive, it grows, flows and changes, it’s alive. Literature is not static, where paintings or collage is often just a snapshot in time, even the ones that are vibrating with energy. Also, many people have access to writing, where only a few people might see a painting or other form of physical art. So writing to me is a way to reach a lot more people than I could with painting. Also, a lot of my ideas are fluid, they flow and change, so writing is the best artistic format for me to replicate that sense of movement and progression.

Ben: Does your job as an architect have an influence on how you write?

Tony: Occasionally. I’m lucky because from time to time my job allows for some introspection and contemplation, so I get some time to think about story arcs, ideas, and endings, etc. Writing is just designing with words.

But having free time with no other thoughts is a huge advantage – walking my dog, biking, cleaning, driving (or sitting in traffic), wandering the aisles at the supermarket, or wandering the back alleys with a vacant look in the middle of the night can all afford time to think. I have learned to use the interstitial spaces of the day to my advantage.

Ben: All of your books are short story collections. Why do you favor the short story form? Have you considered writing a novel?

Tony: Like punk rock, I like the burst of color and pungent flavor, condensing, distillation, immediacy, economy, efficiency, the manageable scale to allow for experimentation and exploring the elasticity of the format that shorts allow.

I wrote a novel last year and hope to work on the second part in that series this coming year. It is a short chapter novel, which is similar to a series of stories or linked adventures. I had some left-over material that had similar themes and took place in similar settings, so like a puzzle they seemed to link and fit. I thought it would be a novella – maybe ninety pages, but it ballooned to three hundred pages. That first novel is like a series of linked shorts.

Ben: Do you write your stories with a theme in mind for collections, or do you just focus on them as stand-alone stories?

Tony: Stand-alones. But sitting and thinking and typing, and then walking around thinking, gets me on a vibe. So there are similar themes in each – loss, escape, absurd situations, existential longing, discovery, secrets, identity, strange happenings, endurance, regret, fragility, uncertainty, impermanence, the mysteries hidden in everyday life, discovery, ennui, loneliness, irresponsible behavior, confusion, change, and absurd situations. The stories seem to fall into several templates that then get funneled into each collection.

Ben: You have a few screenplays on your website. Have any been sold or are in the process of being developed by any filmmakers?

Tony: I had some local indie filmmakers interested in “A light in the darkness” but nothing went beyond the initial development stage, which surprised me because it’s a walk-n-talk indie that would take maybe three weeks to film. I have an idea for another film, and notes for it somewhere, but haven’t had time to dig into that one. My books have been more of a priority because they garnered the most fruit. Every once in a while someone will want to try one of my stories out as a short film or play, but so far nothing concrete has ever come of those inquiries.

Ben: Which of your books would you recommend for someone just discovering your work?

Tony: I have 4 story collections published. Samples are on my website – see the link below. It would depend on your personal tastes, but they’re all ripe for the adventurous reader who is looking for something different, creative, imaginative, thought-provoking, hard to classify, and/or a mix or swirl of genres. I would say “eyeballs” or “what if” since they are the latest and thus represent more life experience and more writing under my belt, but any of them would be fine.

Ben: What are you currently working on?

Tony: Probing your demons. Scoping your lobe for leaks. Tripping the light fantastic. Finally living up to lowered expectations. The usual. Finished a mostly YA sci-fi novel late last year and am sending to agents, which is daunting. I’ll start the second book in that series this summer. I have the notes and an outline. Will start to send to some smaller publishers because it doesn’t look like the agent route will work out, which is deflating because the book is righteous.

I also have 3 or 4 other completed story collections I need to find a publisher for. Three of those are strange YA sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tale adventures and one is a more adult absurdist collection. They’re just as interesting and inventive as my last two collections, maybe even better. If anyone knows of anyone out there looking for odd story collections, please let me know.

Ben: Any links or anything else to plug?

Tony: Book and story samples can be found on my website at https://trauch.wordpress.com/

Hopefully I’ll be able to find a suitable publisher for the books mentioned above, and then will have more wares to pitch in the near future.

You Dirty Rat! An Interview with Editor, Author, Musician, and Artist Ira Rat

by Ben Arzate

Ira Rat is a fellow Iowan and a jack-of-all-trades in the arts. Here, I pick his brain to see what he’s all about. A quick disclaimer: I had a story published in his zine Fucked Up Stories to Tell in the Daytime and I’m very grateful he featured it.

Ben Arzate: Let’s just jump right into it. Can you give us a brief introduction? Who is Ira Rat?

Ira Rat: That’s the question I ask myself everyday. Without getting too existential or pretentious about it, I’m just a person who makes things. I get ideas and then I have to figure out what the best way of getting it out is. Over the course of all that, I make music, design, and write. I also like getting things out there for other people so I’ve run the record label Drug Arts and just started the press Filthy Loot.

Ben: Filthy Loot just put out its first zine, Fucked Up Stories to Tell in the Daytime. Obviously a riff on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. What was your inspiration to create it? Is this the first zine you’ve created or curated?

Ira: Making little publications is something I’ve done going all the way back to high school. I was making chapbooks and zines for the poetry and music writing that my friends and myself were constantly churning out. Really the three things that got me thinking I should make this was sitting at work binge listening to Bizzong, then appearing in Ben Fitt’s The Rock n’ Roll Horror Zine with one of my stories, and finally finding a few copies of Freak Tension that I bought from Emma Johnson years ago in the bottom of a box of books. There is no real eureka about the idea, basically the name popped into my head and it was a “duh, of course I’m going to do this” moment.

 

Ben: You also just put out a limited edition chapbook called Learned Animals. Can you tell us a little about that?

Ira: That’s a chapbook of one of my stories, it’s kind of a stand alone idea that was a tribute an odd fever-dream tribute to Shirley Jackson. After working with a few people editing it, I just didn’t feel like submitting it anywhere — so I just made a cover and printed up some copies.

Ben: You’re also currently taking submissions for another zine called No. What is the concept behind that one?

Ira: No. is pretty nebulous, the original idea was for it to be something that Lazy Fascist would have put out, because I don’t really see many presses covering that literary bizarro area. Though, I’ve learned from years of trying to force expectations that nothing is set in stone until it’s done, so it’s still open to interpretation from the people who submit. Fucked Up Stories… definitely was one of those projects that the submissions ended up defining what it ended up being. So I’m trying to learn not to push my own agenda on these zines and just let them be what gels together.

Ben: You also do music. What kind of music do you make? How long have you been doing that?

Ira: I’ve been making music since about 2000. Though much of the early stuff is mercifully lost. The music that I’ve made for the past few years is mostly focused on experimental, inspired by musicians like Brian Eno and Throbbing Gristle who really push the idea of actually learning your instrument can be detrimental to creativity. Everything that I make other than design has an element of purposeful naivete, because when I start taking things too seriously it gets boring. Though with my writing, I hire editors to make it sound like I know the proper way to use a semicolon.

Ben: Ha! I know how that feels. You design as well. Do you do all your own art? What do you enjoy most, writing, making music, or making visual art?

Ira: What I do is closer to collage than to illustration, but I do illustration here and there as well. Like the cover to Fucked Up Stories… is based off of a stock image I bought from a website years ago that I always liked. I then illustrated it to look like something that would have been on the cover of a Scary Stories book. I went to art school, so I come from the idea that everything is appropriation, but the idea is to pull enough randomness in there that it’s not just regurgitating the same things over and over. Or you know, blatantly stealing something and claiming it as your own — though some artists have done that and done really well. I weirdly compartmentalize and so I don’t have a preference what medium I’m doing. Like my short stories come from a place of my interest in odd conspiracy theories and other things that if I were to explore in other formats it might be considered taboo for someone like me to be exploring.

Ben: What are some your biggest inspirations in the different fields of art that you’re involved with?

Ira: Oh god. Francis Bacon, Kurt Vonnegut, Throbbing Gristle, Stephen King, Daniel Clowes, William Burroughs, Tomato Design, DEVO, Harmony Korine, Charles Bukowski, Jay Reatard, Angus Oblong, David Lynch, Marcel Duchamp, Neil Gaiman, Chip Kidd, Clive Barker, Sam Pink, Andy Warhol, Crispin Glover, Cindy Sherman, Aaron Draplin, Hannah Höch… I’m sure I’m missing some big ones in there. The first album I ever owned was a dubbed copy of The White Album when I was 6, so I’m sure that’s where my eclecticism comes from. I spent days in a creative process class just making lists of things that interest me and people who influence me so that’s far from comprehensive.

Ben: Besides the No zine, what are some other projects that you’re currently working on?

Ira: I’m also working on a zine called Drag Drugs Death that will be a weird fiction tribute to Warhol and The Factory, Fucked Up Stories #2, and I’m at the early stages of trying to figure out a good name for a splatterpunk zine. I’m always working on other stuff, like “Spektorvisions” by my band Neon Lushell is turning into our version of Guns N’ Roses’s Chinese Democracy. I’ve been telling people it’s going to come out “any time now” for 5 years.

Ben: What are your goals with Filthy Loot? Do you want to keep it a zine and chapbook press, or are you interested in putting out full length books at some point?

Ira: I’m seeing where things take me. Right now I’m doing zines and chapbooks because I can do them myself and not have to tie up a lot of money in one project. Though I’m not against anything.

Ben: Zines seem to be making a bit of a comeback recently. What do you think is the appeal of zines over, say, publishing online or with an ebook?

Ira: Zines have always been bubbling under the surface. One of the things I guess would be an appeal is that you can sit there at a copy shop and make a few copies and not have to get too invested in making 1k perfect bound books. Personally I’ve always just like cool little objects that even if they sit on a shelf or in a box that you can take it out later and appreciate. That’s one of the reasons why I put a few different bobbles in with the zine to just put cool things out into the world. The problem with digital publishing is that I literally have 100 books in my Kindle that I got for free or next to nothing, but I’m going to grab a book because there’s a physical presence there to remind you to read it. I know the argument that you’re killing trees, etc. but the world as it is we need less screen time. Or at least I do.

Ben: Last question, why did you choose Ira Rat as your pen name? Or is that your real name and I’m a fucking idiot?

Ira: To confirm the person who harassed me online a couple weeks ago. It’s because I used to snitch on the Irish Republican Army. There was thought behind the name, but more interesting than that is that I recently discovered that “irarat” in Latin is a congregation of “I become angry, I fly off into a rage” which is a good enough reason as any to keep using it.

Ben: Where can our readers find your angry, snitching ass online?

Ira: Filthyloot.com and Irarat.com

Ben: Thanks so much for the interview!

Ira: No, thank you. And thanks for the support and being in the zine and what not.

The Night Shift Writer: An Interview with Christine Morgan

It’s our pleasure to introduce Christine Morgan, author of Spermjackers from Hell and a well-known figure in the world of weird fiction, to our author interview series. She’s set to appear in Silent Motorist Media’s first anthology, Mannequin: Tales of Word Made Flesh, and we consider it an honor that she’s gracing our site with her presence again. Without further ado, here’s Austin James and Christine Morgan:

“Everyone, writer or reader or fan… read. Read a lot. Read a bunch of things…. Words are my toys. Language is like Play-Doh, a complete sensory experience, get into it, the colors, the textures, squish it, sniff it… make whatever you want out of it. Yes, know the rules, but don’t be afraid to bend them and stretch them and even break them when needed.” -Christine Morgan

Austin James: First question: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Christine Morgan: Star Trek.

Surely you kid, you jokester you…

Nope … though Next Gen rather than Original Series.

Wow. I really wasn’t expecting that. What makes it better than Star Wars?

I just like it better … more characters, more interaction, more story and worldbuilding overall.

But less lightsabers.

Well, yeah … but less midichlorians, too.

Ah, straight for the jugular I see. Is that what kind of interview this is gonna be?

Hey, you asked.

Haha fair enough. Switching gears into the writing world, I really love your prose. It’s enchanting. How long have you been writing?

I’ve been the storyteller type as long as I can remember; my toys led complex soap-opera and epic adventure lives even when I was little. In school, when we’d get writing assignments, I was always the one to go off on imaginative stuff, was far more fun to write about talking animals than what we actually did over vacation. So, it was never a specific moment or decision, it just happened organically.

Very cool. Did your schools offer any type of creative writing programs or anything?

Not really, not until Creative Writing as a high school elective (and by then I was the weirdo writing about vampires or troops of Girl Scouts killing people, go figure). I got placed in some of the accelerated programs in elementary school, where they challenged us with tougher reading material, and appreciated that.

So, you’ve always kind of been naturally attracted to creating dark, weird fiction?

Yeah, lifelong interest in mythology, fairy tales, and folklore … very dark and weird stuff there … and my reading tastes tended toward the macabre from an early age. My grandfather had a shelf of horror paperbacks he kept in the garage (I think Grandma didn’t want them in the house) and when we’d visit, I’d sneak out there and read. Lots of nature-run-amok stuff, animals eating people, things like that.

That’s kind of a fun story right there, taking unsanctioned peeks at outlawed literature…

When I was ten, I found this paperback with a shiny silver cover out there, my introduction to Stephen King (The Shining) … one of my aunts told my parents it’d warp me for life and she was right. 🙂 I still have it. Poor book is in bad shape, but I still have it! I also discovered Amityville out there, and The Rats by James Herbert … JAWS … Shaun Hutson’s Slugs … fun stuff!

And that’s the inciting incident, the moment you went dark!

Probably didn’t help that, when I was in junior high, our local library somehow thought Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews was what passed for YA back then and shelved it with Anne of Green Gables … wow, did we pass THAT one around!

What was the first story you wrote that got published?

My first published piece was a gaming thing in Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid magazine, about a wacky old alchemist and his shop, to use as a setting for fantasy games. I had a lot of stories online and in webzines back in the late 90’s, but was mostly doing fanfic then and puttering with fantasy novels. My first official pro sale was “Dawn of the Living-Impaired,” to the zombie anthology The Book of All Flesh.

Nice. Was that when you knew you wanted to take writing seriously?

Well, my initial career path life plan thing had been to do what they say you’re supposed to do … major in English, become a teacher, and write … changed my mind to major in Psychology instead, but the writing goal always remained. I’d been gaming since I was 14 and figured for some dumb reason that, although horror was what I liked to READ, fantasy was what I was supposed to WRITE. It took me a while to convince myself I was allowed to try writing horror too, and I’m glad I finally listened.

Do you consider yourself a horror writer, then?

Primarily, and happily; though I can and do write other stuff as well, even that has a tendency to go darker places. I think that’s why the Viking stuff clicked so hard for me … it’s the perfect storm, combining all those elements of fantasy, horror, mythology, etc.

Do you think studying psychology also helped with your writing?

Oh, studying psych definitely helped! I even suspect (though don’t tell the professors) it helped more than having an English major would have done. It’s all about personality and behavior, what makes people do what they do, how they think and react … great for developing characters. Plus, you get all the Jungian stuff about archetypes, which ties right in to myth and folklore.

Now, looping back to your first question, I realize that may seem kind of odd, my preference for Star Trek, since Star Wars was so loaded with Jungian aspects, the whole Joseph Campbell hero’s journey blah-de-blah, but … well, there it is. Minds are weird. 😊

Tell me about your books?

My books … my books … all of them? Well, the earliest are fantasy, traditional fantasy in the elves and dragons sense, drawn from gaming campaigns (I know, but it was fun). I have two trilogies of those, plus a six-book series for younger readers that I wrote when the whole Harry Potter craze was taking off. I’m fond of them, but ow, those early ones are about what you’d expect. 😊

Yeah? So, they found little success?

Little success would be one way to put it. The very first fantasy book, when I was young and new and stupid, I fell in with a scam agent/publisher, and it soured me so that I ended up self-pubbing the second and third.

Then what, after the fantasy fiction?

Then I decided to just go for it and try my hand at horror, starting with Black Roses. It’s an incubus story, and the first of what I think of as the Trinity Bay books, all set in the same fictional north-coast California town. Gifted Children, the second, is about creepy kids and science experiments and psychic powers. In the third, Changeling Moon, I bring a couple of rival factions of an ancient shapeshifting race to town (that one’s particularly based on some of my old fanfics, with the serial numbers filed off).

What are your thoughts on self-publishing versus housing a project?

I’ve been glad to see the stigma fall away these past years, though I do admit there sure is a lot of self-pubbed dreck out there, poorly edited and with crappy covers, etc. So, it’s easier than ever for good stuff to get lost in the crowd, but I believe it’s possible to succeed and have seen some savvy authors do pretty well.

So back to your books. At what point did you feel like you were making progress as far as writing quality books and getting them published with “satisfactory” results?

Well, for a while I just stuck with self-pub; my husband at the time was good at the layout and design end of things and enjoyed it, so we did my pirate-themed reality show Tell No Tales, and my purse-snatcher-vs.-assassin thriller called Scoot, and his whole game-world book (that was a biggie!). But I’d also decided to try some small presses again, and luck began turning with His Blood (non-sparkly vampires) and The Horned Ones (cave monsters). Not that I felt anything close to being successful or a “real” writer … hell, even now with some bucket list goals checked off, I still don’t, and probably never will … imposter syndrome is one sly bitch.

Haha true. Since you brought it up, what does your bucket list look like? What things have you already checked off?

Deadite Press was the biggie. I know some authors have the six-figure advance or movie deal or world book tour, but that’s way beyond me … I’ve been such a fan of Deadite, love the extreme horror … being able to join that crazy family is one of the best things that’s ever happened for me. I’ve also gotten to work with Edward Lee (EDWARD-FREAKIN’-LEE), as a proofreader and he lets me play with his toys … my next goal there is to sweet-talk him into an actual collaboration.

I mean, sure, I wouldn’t mind a castle in Scotland like JK Rowling, but who would?

I’m still just surprised whenever anybody who doesn’t HAVE to actually reads my stuff; I may never get over that.

Fair enough. And yeah, I’m a big fan of the stuff Deadite publishes as well. To be honest, I’d want a castle in Transylvania but that’s just me.

I’d be torn … Germany/Austria, or Norway … but Scottish accents …

Let’s be honest, we’d both take a castle in Nebraska at this point.

True enough.

So how many books have you written and published?

I think for books written, I’m up to about two dozen, some now out of print … that includes the gaming and fantasy stuff too … I’ve also edited and published the Fossil Lake anthology series, which is up to four books now (got put on hold during my latest health mess but I still hope to resume them again eventually).

Fossil Lake?

It’s kind of a long sordid story involving an infamous internet pest … I started off as a contributor, then agreed to help edit, then ended up inheriting / taking over the entire project after the original publisher passed away and her company was dissolved.

Oh wow. But there are four of them, so it sounds like you enjoy it?

The first two didn’t have particular themes, but then I got a little crazy so the third is Unicornado and the fourth is Sharkasaurus … when I do a fifth, I want to call it “Were-What?” and have it be tales of unlikely shapeshifting.

I love reading and editing and working with authors; where I fall down is with the layout, design, technical stuff, so it’s a mixed bag. I’ve edited a couple of other anthologies for small presses and enjoy it a lot, as long as someone else does the ‘hard’ part. 😊

Haha, makes sense. With all the books you’ve written and anthologies you’ve edited, what has been your favorite project?

Oh, I hate those kinds of questions … it’s like being asked which is your favorite kid (though, only having one kid, I can dodge that one … except for when we used to tease her about her “attic sister” … anyway!).

I’m so very proud of The Raven’s Table, my Viking collection … that I managed enough Viking stories to put it together, that I was able to get a blurb from an expert I admire, that the book turned out just so damn gorgeous. I’m delighted with Spermjackers From Hell, my Deadite debut, so trashy and tacky. White Death, my pioneer blizzard book inspired by an actual historical event, came out on audio from just the most amazing reader. But right now, the biggie has got to be the upcoming Lakehouse Infernal (also from Deadite), because Edward-freakin’-LEE granted me permission to do a sequel to his Lucifer’s Lottery and writing it was the most fun I’ve ever had.

Wow, that’s really cool!

His only request was that he got to have a cameo in it, though I may have gone a bit further than just cameo; he turned out to be a fun character, and Lee himself really got a kick out of it.

Nice, looking forward to it! When does it release?

Not gotten the official release date yet, but 2019, possibly around Spring Break because that’s when the story’s set.

While we’re on the topic, what else can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future? I already know about a couple anthologies (including a dragon-themed anthology discussed in a previous SMM interview that I’m shamelessly plugging here), but what else?

Yes, I’ve got stories in several upcoming anthologies (Lovecraftian and such) … I’ve recently found homes for a zombie collection and a steampunkish collection … I’m currently working on a deep-sea chompy-chomp extreme horror to submit to Deadite, and my sister will strangle me if I don’t mention plans for a Murder Girls sequel.

Sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you have a routine or anything that you follow to stay both creative and productive?

I work overnights at a residential psych facility, so I do most of my writing there when things are quiet … the unpredictability of the job does make keeping a strict routine difficult, so I’m not one of those who can do X words a day or X hours a day diligently. I take what I can get when I can get it in terms of productivity. For the creative side of things, I’ve always got several ideas brewing at various stages, and even when I’m not writing, I’m reading and reviewing and doing edits and stuff like that. So, one way or another, it’s all words all the time. Health permitting. The past couple years have made things a little rough in that regard. But I keep pushing through!

Great way to make life work for you! Does your boss know that you do this, or are you also juggling a sense of secrecy with all this?

Nah, they know … that’s why I stay on the night shift … they’ve tried now and then to get me to do other shifts or advance in the agency to something other than residential, but I’m open about it … I want my night shifts and quiet down time so I can write. And, given it’s hard to cover that shift anyway, they don’t really complain. As long as I get my regular duties done and am there as needed for the residents.

Makes sense. Win/win.

I do, though, downplay a bit about WHAT I write … don’t mention certain titles, etc.

Hah, yeah that’s probably wise. So earlier you mentioned that White Death is out in audiobook. What’s your experience with that been like?

My only previous experience with audiobooks (besides listening to them on long drives, of which I am a big fan) was recording Black Roses myself with an indie audiobook producer way back years ago … fun experience, a little weird, taught me the hard way how sometimes we use words we’ve only seen in print and never heard aloud … to this day, I don’t know for sure how “cupola” is pronounced.

Right?

With White Death, the reader — Matt Godfrey, and he is excellent! — approached me, and I was just blown away by his work. There are a lot of characters in that book, a lot of accents and voices, and he nailed ’em all beautifully. He also tackled the most traumatic scene I’ve ever written, brief and sparse though it was, just tore my guts out to write and to read, and … yeah … he nailed it.

So what else? Anything in particular you want to talk about? Shameless plugs? Spoilers? Words of general wisdom?

Oh, just to urge people to read. Everyone, writer or reader or fan … read. Read a lot. Read a bunch of things. I see too many authors mention not reading within their genre for fear of being derivative or polluting their own work … or not reading outside their genre because of some snobbery or another … that seems so strange to me. Words are my toys. Language is like Play-Doh, a complete sensory experience, get into it, the colors, the textures, squish it, sniff it (okay maybe don’t taste it, yick, that was a cruel life-lesson to learn), make whatever you want out of it. Yes, know the rules, but don’t be afraid to bend them and stretch them and even break them when needed. Most of all, have fun!

Austin James writes obscure and uncomfortable fiction.

 

I Am The Nameless Dark: An Interview with T. E. Grau

I had the honor of reading and reviewing T. E. Grau’s excellent novel, I Am The River, for this site a month or two ago, and it still stands out to me as one of the best works of literary horror I’ve stumbled across in 2018. Check out the review here, pick up the book, and proceed to the interview!

-Justin A. Burnett

“I like to explore darkness, be it in the universe, on this planet, inside a human being, or in some other or any other form. I […] find a certain sad and terrible beauty in shadowed things. The dark feels comfortable.” -T. E. Grau

Burnett: I absolutely loved both The Nameless Dark and I Am The River. There seems to be a change of winds between your collection and your novel, however. Are you deliberately heading into more literary territory, or is the more literary style of I Am The River something that arose to fit the specific needs of that story?

Grau: A little bit of both, I think, but more so the latter than the former.

The Nameless Dark represents my first real foray into horror fiction writing, and horror fiction reading, and reflects the large amount of Lovecraft I was consuming for a script project I was working on at the time of my shift from writing scripts to writing prose. Hence, many of those first stories that I wrote and had published were either set in a Lovecraftian universe, or straight-up Lovecraftian pastiche, with a few other genre tropes represented, as well. As I got my sea legs, explored what I wanted to explore in the more established genres and tropes, I started to stretch a little, which resulted in stories that might be broadly described as “literary” and less easily defined and categorized. Less straight-forward “genre.” That’s probably the case with many writers who start – either by design or by chance – within the confines of well-worn and codified modes, and then work their way outward. In my case, the new geography resulted in stories like “Tubby’s Big Swim,” “Clean,” and “To the Hills,” and in my novel I Am The River, which was written in the style that the story and subject matter demanded, without me having much say in the conversation. I had no idea how I Am The River would move or sound when I sat down to write it. The style and texture of the book was born with it and grew with the story.

Moving forward, and if forced to use labels that I don’t always believe in, my work will probably be seen as more “literary” and less “genre,” although I make no distinction between the two, as anything “literary” that I write will mostly likely have an element of “genre” in some way. Genres have become genres for a reason. They’re consistently interesting, incredibly fun, and capable of delving into any aspect of the human condition, existential crisis, and universal mystery a reader (or writer) could possibly want. Besides, some of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read were also certainly “genre fiction.” The distinctions are mostly meaningless outside of marketing, critical, and academic circles. I can’t imagine readers and writers worrying much about such terms.

Do you mind providing a quick and tantalizing run-down of I Am The River for readers who haven’t picked up the book yet?

Instead of coming up with something new that won’t be much different than what is already out there, I will defer to the promo text provided by the publisher, because a) I wrote it anyway, and b) it sums up the book pretty well:

During the last desperate days of the Vietnam War, American soldier Israel Broussard is assigned to a secret CIA PSYOP far behind enemy lines meant to drive terror into the heart of the North Vietnamese and end an unwinnable war. When the mission goes sideways, Broussard is plunged into a nightmare that he soon finds he is unable to escape, dragging a remnant of that night in the Laotian wilderness with him no matter how far he runs. Five years later, too damaged to return home and holed up in the slums of Bangkok, where he battles sleep, guilt, and a creeping sense of madness, Broussard discovers that he must journey back to the jungles of Laos in an attempt to set things right and reclaim what is left of his life.

A fever dream with a Benzedrine chaser, I Am The River provides a daring, often surreal examination of the Vietnam War and the days after it, burrowing down past the bullets and battlefields to discover the lingering horror of warfare, the human consequences of organized violence, and the lasting effects of trauma on the psyche, and the soul.

What inspired I Am The River? How did this excellent book come into being?

A few years back, a filmmaker who had read my collection approached me with the idea of exploring PTSD and sleep paralysis in relation to the CIA PSYOP program Operation Wandering Soul, which was a real thing utilized by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War (Google this – it’s pretty nuts). He wanted me to write a story that dealt with these elements, so that he could adapt the published work into a screenplay and then package it as a feature film that he’d shoot. Being the son of a Vietnam vet who has always been fascinated by that time and place and circumstance, I took on the project, and came up with the plot, characters, and mythology, based on those backdrop elements he provided. The result was I Am The River, which I sold to Lethe Press as a novella project. While writing the book, it grew into a novel, becoming my first. An unorthodox, circuitous journey for a book, but I’m very pleased with the result.

I Am The River seems to have a underlying connection to music. “Black Shuck” is a song by The Darkness, and many of the chapter titles are albums from various bands ( Ch. 27, A Love of Shared Disasters by Crippled Black Phoenix, Ch. 38, South of Heaven by Slayer, Ch. 40, The Fire in our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw by Pelican, etc.). How do these references nuance the narrative? Do these nods to the music world indicate a love for music that influenced the creation of I Am The River in any way?

I never knew that “Black Shuck” was a song, to be honest. I need to check that out. I stumbled across the legend of the old hound in my spiraling and rabbit hole research on sleep paralysis and folklore related to ghostly beasts that stole breath from humans as they slept, and thought it was perfect for the story, so I adapted Black Shuck and repurposed it for the River.

The chapter titles are most definitely nods to the songs and bands and style of music I was listening to while writing the book, or just enjoy in general, and echo something in the chapter they name. Also, Chapter Forty-One (“Everything You Need”) is a shout out to Michael Marshall Smith, a friend and literary role model; while the very last chapter, Chapter Forty-Two (“The 21st Chapter”), is a nod to A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, who wasn’t allowed to include his final chapter – Chapter 21 – in the American edition of his novel, which was the edition adapted by Kubrick into the film. That infuriated him, and pissed me off, many years later, so I wrote my final chapter as a eulogy to his final stanza, so grossly excised from his work without his permission, that totally changes the ending of that book. I was happy that I could divide 21 into 42, slicing it into two perfect parts, and give a chapter name to a chapter name. There’s symmetry there.

I Am The River reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in more than one way. Not only is there the jungle housing a rogue official, but the tone and sense of impending psychological breakdown of your novel further parallels Conrad’s masterpiece. Did Heart of Darkness play any role in your creation of I Am The River? Did any other readings inspire you here?

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of my wife’s favorite novels, and it’s the inspiration for arguably my favorite film of all time (Apocalypse Now and There Will Be Blood are forever dueling for top status in my brain), so I’m certain it influenced the story, although not in any intentional way. Both the novel and the especially the film are just so ingrained in my DNA that I’m unable to shake either when thinking about war and colonization (the twin snakes wrapped around the caduceus staff – which, as it turns out, is the ancient symbol of commerce, the root of most war), and especially the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

I did a lot of research for the book, which included deep dives into the Operation Wandering Soul history and methodology, the various covert programs run by the CIA and military intelligence in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, and reading the novel Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, which I credit for some of the slang and shorthand used between the soldiers. I also spoke with renowned horror author, Marine, and Vietnam vet Gene O’Neill at Stokercon on the Queen Mary a few years back, while the book was still in the outline stage, and that conversation was very helpful in terms of staging and coloring various scenes, especially the military base on Okinawa. I’m very grateful to Gene for sharing his experience, and I included him in the book’s dedication.

What artistic or communicative goals do you have as a writer? How close do you feel I Am The River came to meeting these goals?

Documenting wonder and beauty and horror, and the incalculable potential of the infinite. Expressing my pessimism about humanity, and distrust of large corporate structures. Celebrating the numinous, and examining the hidden. I like to explore darkness, be it in the universe, on this planet, inside a human being, or in some other or any other form. I have a hopeless fascination with the abomination (Conrad nod!), and find a certain sad and terrible beauty in shadowed things. The dark feels comfortable. I also cannot escape my sense of wonder at the mysteries and complexities and unknowns of things both near and far, combined with a deeply held trust in mankind’s ability to pervert, degrade, and destroy innocence, the natural world, and things to which it has no right. These twin concepts – wonder and pessimism – always seem to inform my writing. Also, a certain amount of outrage at the shittiness of humanity as a mean and hateful species inexorably weaves its way into the story, as it does in many of my stories. After recent world events, I can only see that getting more pronounced moving forward.
Based on the setting, concepts, circumstances, characters, and results in I Am The River, I feel that the novel comes pretty close to achieving my goals of addressing all of those things. Probably closer than anything that I’ve ever written.

Let’s focus on your collection for a moment. The Nameless Dark deals with Lovecraftian lore in more than one instance. If you don’t mind, describe your readerly relationship to Lovecraft. When did you come across his work? How did it influence your trajectory as a writer?

I touched on this briefly above, but in terms of when I discovered his work, I was handed a collection of Lovecraft’s stories my freshman year of college, and then I read the whole thing several times on a family vacation driving across the country. I don’t remember much of the scenery zipping by outside the window on that trip, as I was totally and utterly engrossed with what I was reading. I had never encountered anything like it before.

Years later, Lovecraftian fiction would serve as my entry point to the publishing industry as a prose writer. I never could have foreseen that happening, nor that cosmicism and atheistic pessimism would influence so much of what I have written, and will write. A bleak, uncaring, and vaguely populated universe grounded in both science and the inexplicable is the bedrock religion of all of my stories and books, even when nothing cosmic or supernatural is present. It’s the filter through which everything passes.

The Nameless Dark  attracted some attention. Were you surprised by its success?

Yes, I was. I figured the stories were decent, but there are a lot of great writers doing what I do, and doing it better, so I was just hoping it would move a few copies and entertain some readers, while allowing me to write stuff I really enjoyed thinking about. That The Nameless Dark is now housed in dozens of libraries from here to New Zealand, garnered a nomination for a Shirley Jackson Award, has been fully translated into a Spanish edition and contains stories that have been translated into German, Japanese, and Italian, and has been enjoyed by a surprising number of people all over the world is truly beyond any expectation I had for the book, and for my work as a writer. It’s been a wonderful surprise, and fills me with gratitude to everyone who played a part.

Do you feel a strong stylistic affinity to any other writers out there today? Who would you categorize yourself alongside in terms of style, tone, or thematic focus?

I’ve become increasingly hesitant to discuss current authors or draw some/any sort of comparison to peers, as mentioning some might antagonize by the association, while unintentionally leaving others off might hurt feelings. It’s a tricky business, so I tend to avoid it.

I’ll let others far more qualified and objective draw parallels and make correlations.

Are there any contemporary writers out there you feel deserve more recognition than they’ve received?

There are dozens and dozens of writers working in small press dark fiction that deserve more recognition, both within the scene and in the wider world. Follow the good writers, and see who they read. That’s always a good starting point.

If I had to chose one, I’d say that Christopher Slatsky deserves a mountain of recognition, as he’s a superb, unique writer, and creating work that is incredibly intelligent, haunting, and truly, truly Weird. His work will stand up a century from now.

And finally, what’s next in the world of T.E. Grau? Can readers expect new material in the future? Are there any announcements you’d like to leave your fans with?

I’m working on a few things, including my next novel, Salt Creek. For those familiar, the title (rather unimaginatively) refers to my Salt Creek universe, reconnoitered most directly in my novelette The Mission. The novel Salt Creek is set during contemporary times, and combines elements of crime, horror, and oddball speculative fiction. I’m being intentionally (and annoyingly) vague, but when asked, I fall back on a hacky Hollywood pitch of “It’s Twin Peaks meets the X-Files meets Willa Cather.” See, not the greatest logline since sliced bread, but it’ll do for now. Don’t want to spill too many beans until they’re all counted and a few of them are planted, waiting for that beanstalk.

More generally, I recently signed with Paradigm Talent Agency, represented by the superlative Kim Yau, and look forward to exploring various opportunities with Paradigm in my corner. Stay tuned.

-Justin A. Burnett