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