Night Time Logic is the part or parts of a story that are felt but not consciously processed. Those that operate below the conscious surface. Those that are processed somewhere, somehow, and in some way other than… overtly and consciously. The deep-down scares. The scares that find their way to our core and unsettle us in ways we rarely see coming…
In this column, which shares a name with my New York-based reading series, I explore this phenomenon, other notions of what makes horror tick, and my favorite authors and stories, new and old with you.
“The veil of the eye” is a line from a poem that inspired one of guest Inna Effress’ recent stories. In today’s conversation we speak about what Inna calls “the fog of uncertainty” and more.
In the preceding Night Time Logic column I spoke with Sarah Langan about stories without apparent supernatural elements in them, such as Langan’s own Good Neighbors and much of Jack Ketchum’s work, stories that operate in the borderland between crime or true crime and horror yet still “fits” under the umbrella of the genre. On first glance, Inna Effress’ stories operate on what I call “face value,” where they could certainly be read as having no supernatural elements in play, yet (I find) there is always at least a hint of something more — and by “something more” I mean the possibility or presence of the supernatural. Three of Effress’ recent stories — “The Devil and the Divine,” “Nervous System,” and “Malady of Laughter” — that we take a close look at in this interview have appeared in “weird fiction” projects but would be equally at home in literary publications.
This comes as no surprise to me. I first met Inna at a Night Time Logic event I hosted in the (now defunct) Lovecraft Bar in New York City. The event was recorded and you can hear it over at the Outer Dark podcast.
Moments before the discussion was set to begin Inna politely and professionally took me aside and told me, as if a confession, that she did not know much about horror as a genre. In response I mentioned to her that not only is there nothing wrong with this, and that I also began my writing journey knowing very little about “genre” and the “genres.” I also told her that two of my favorite authors, Tanith Lee and Robert Aickman, were known to write in ways other than having genre as a starting place, which made me even more interested in learning about her and her work.
Inna’s process yields unique and masterful results and is just one of the reasons her work is a must read for me. When I had an early look at the story “The Devil and the Divine” I knew Inna was on to something very special. We begin our conversation there.
DANIEL BRAUM: You begin the story “The Devil and the Divine” with this quote from Suji Kwock Kim.
How will you rip away the veil of the eye, the veil
That you are, you who want to grasp the heart
Of things, hungry to know where meaning
Why start with this quote? Did you have it in mind while you were drafting the story?
INNA EFFRESS: Each time I read the poem “Monologue For An Onion,” I’m struck by its relentlessness. It evokes a savage hunger, the digging and digging endlessly under each surface of the self with the hope of reaching a “secret core.” The poem is from her collection Notes From the Divided Country, and reminded me of the desperation and elusiveness I had in mind when writing this piece, the impossible search for oneself in someone else and the bottomless quest for meaning.
Normally I work on my stories for months and, sometimes, years. It’s not unusual that my endings won’t start to come into focus until I identify a text that speaks directly to the emotion and imagery of my work in progress, and lights a new piece of the trail for me to follow until I finally grope my way in the dark to the story’s end.
When I re-read the story and re-read the quote, it worked as a lens with which to view the story.
“…Flowers had the chitinous sheen of exoskeleton. In a hot blaze of sea, this tusk of land breached the blue waters like an ancient beast emerging from their loneliest depths. An army of giant Banyans garrisoned its shores. Now a refuge for the exiled and displaced, the Island had once been a small but thriving kingdom…”
This paragraph from where I took this excerpt captured my attention and is among my favorite passages from your body of work. It does tell us everything we need to know about setting, yet in my opinion leaves elements open to interpretation, which we will discuss later on. Yet, this place is referred to only as “the Island.” Is it based on a real place? If so, where? Or what was your inspiration for the Island?
Place often becomes its own character in much of my work; it’s my way of immersing myself into the emotion. For me, imagery is where all feeling lies. In this particular story, there were quite a few rounds of edits over a spread-out period of time, and I ended up striking any specific references to the Island’s geography. It seemed like the right thing to do, to wrap the setting in a dreamier, and less certain, gauze.
The first time the main character, Clava, watches the singer (who is a male) it reads as if she is watching a ghost and if she is a ghost herself. What can you tell us about that scene and that part of the story?
My favorite song is “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” as performed by Caetano Veloso in the Almodovar film, Talk To Her. There was a time when I had an unhealthy fascination with his musical performance in the movie, and with the physical response by the actors in the audience. I’d watch the clip obsessively on repeat. In it, two weeping men listen and reminisce about the women they love. Veloso sings the dove’s cooing sound, for which the song is named, and he does it with this sort of hypnotic restraint that manages to bring the song into its own heat and light –-– as if the song itself were the ghost. Through his performance, the singer manages to conjure the essence of life: a paradox of bereavement and hope. The story begins there.
In the same scene you give us the depiction of the fig, the wasp, and the bat and the cycle of how a wasp is born from the fruit of a fig. Again, the prose presents this real-world phenomenon as otherworldly. Tell us about the recurring use of the fruits on the Island.
There’s a mysterious alchemy between the tree, the fig, and the wasp, a fate-bound creature that gives birth inside the fruit even while she’s dying. Inside that symbiosis, which begins with a bat’s defecated seed over the treetops, is inevitability –-– a theme I come back to often as a reader and a writer.
Our perspectives, I think, are tricked and governed by relationships like that one, so innate to our daily lives and so intricate, that we’re unable to see them, or see our truest selves, and so our lives become entombed by these forces, like the wasp inside the fig.
“Who can say where the line is between loneliness and solitude?”
Clava is on the Island after the death of her husband. What can you tell us about that line, and Clava’s character and where we find her in the beginning of the story?
Admittedly, this is autobiographical. I’m a total loner, sometimes too much so, though I don’t long for social interaction and don’t feel I’m missing anything.
What attracts me and motivates me in my writing is anything that muddies the line or calls into question the definition of a word. Sometimes, I like to slow things down and turn words over to see all of their facets and uses.
In one draft, I’d written a short but detailed memory scene in which Clava’s husband was arrested by militia and dragged away before she came by boat to the Island. I loved the details but I thought they detracted from the story, which needed the fog of uncertainty.
I love that term “the fog of uncertainty”. It reminds me of a term, “intentional ambiguity”, which I use to describe and define an aspect of “strange tales” as in the kind of fiction Robert Aickman writes. Here is a a conversation between author Joshua Rex and I at the Night Parlor podcast where we speak about it.
Clava engages the services of a market vendor mystic who provides her with a charm or spell to find her beloved. Tell us about why Clava does this. This kind of “folk magic,” such as love spells, has been with us for a long time and is common in communities around the world. What is your experience with or perceptions of this kind of folk magic?
Growing up as an immigrant from Eastern Europe, my family had strong superstitious beliefs that had a way of overpowering common sense. The “evil eye” was a constant source of anxiety, its threat looming over us if we didn’t look behind our backs, spit three times over our shoulders, throw salt, carry a piece of coral sewn into our pockets, or perform any number of rituals meant to ward off a curse or at least stop the untimely squandering of any small good fortune that a person could possibly possess in a rural village, cut off from the Western world, and full of spiteful neighbors. But in this case, I wanted to think about what would happen if the talisman was used to cast a spell, to satisfy a desire for something out of reach and possibly not of this world.
The music performances have the feel of a dream and the feel of the supernatural. Is the performance intended to be perceived by the reader as a real world (in the world of the story) happening?
So much of our existence, even as adults, is spent inside our minds, in our fantasy worlds, either in an imagined future, or replaying the past. I think the realm of the dream is always with us, whether we acknowledge it or not. The musical performances here were meant to hold open a door to that part of us, a threshold to step over, if we choose.
As a reader, I’m drawn to the music of stories and novels, whether it’s woven into the rhythms of the sentences or in the sounds the words make to my ear. In this story, I wanted the music to be the genesis of the character’s experience of magic, a kind of perspectival magic which blurs the edge between reality and supernatural.
I think about what Walter Pater wrote, “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” and in my case certainly music guides the way I write anything. And if it is the way into the subconscious mind, then maybe subconsciously, at the time, the music was a way for me to climb into a character who I didn’t quite understand yet.
The singer Clava encounters from the point of the performance onward is an old woman. Can you tell us about that?
This transformation from ageing-but-captivating man to witch-like songstress has to do with vision and the eye, and the uncertainty of what we perceive when desire takes hold of us –-– “the veil of the eye” from the poem.
The writing I do is based on fragments. This is true even when the story I’m working on has a more linear path than this one. The fragments here came about by writing during the early days of pandemic lockdown, a surreal experience which drove me to explore the illogic of what we think we know and the truth behind we think we see.
Is the Island a real place, of this earth? If so, where?
The story is as much about dislocation as it is about hunger and perception and inevitability. I think of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “A Nearness to Tremendousness” and the line “Its location/ Is Illocality.”
This illocality is necessary to Clava’s confusion and pain –-– a kind of pain, I hoped to convey, which is universal and knows no boundaries, geography, or laws, and in a sense is even outside the borders and maps of our limited vision, and of our bodies.
Your answer reminds me of a Joseph Campbell quote, “Where we had thought to be all alone we shall be with all the world.”
You mentioned that imagery is where all feeling lives in your work. Let’s look at this image.
“The swarm of spindly legs crawling over her skin strummed so passionately there was no way they could be phantoms”
What is happening to Clava at this point? Is this line a cypher on how to unlock the story? A clue to what is real and what may be phantasmagoric?
There’s a line earlier in the story, “Desperation warps judgment,” that I thought about a few times while writing. I wanted Clava’s judgment to be impaired from the start so that it was unclear whether she’s existing on a different plane, one of internal fantasy, or if all of these phenomena, in the context of the fiction, are really happening to her and around her.
Once in a while, I re-read my own stories, even years later, and a new realization will dawn on me about the work that I hadn’t noticed before. So, I totally understand what you mean about a cypher that will shed some further understanding. That’s one of the hardest parts about digging into my subconscious –-– I can be pretty slow to pick up on what flowers out of my own mind. I wish I had a cypher, sometimes, too.
Your creative process reminds me of what I’ve heard about the process of Robert Aickman and Tanith Lee. I’m linking to one of our earlier conversations here, where we speak about your creative process, for the readers of this interview.
The story ends on a note that Clava is not going to resist the transformation she is going through, whatever it may be. There is a long lineage of stories where characters receive what they have asked for but it does not turn out to be what they expected or truly wanted. Is this one of these stories? What did Clava want? What did she receive?
The ending went through a few versions. I struggled for a long time with not wanting to betray any of the story’s surreal or sensual qualities by rationalizing too much. The final scene was linked in my mind to the life cycle of the strangler fig and the wasp, while leaving enough space for sensory interpretation by the reader. This ending may be the inverse of what you describe; in the end, Clava may have gotten what she never even knew she wanted.
“Nervous System” and “Malady of Laughter” are stories where setting plays a large role. Let’s talk about these settings. In “Nervous System” we are presented with the information that the main character, Vera has lived in five Cosmopolitan cities — South Beach, Chicago, Los Angeles, London and New York. In “Malady of Laughter” the setting is a poor village in Tanzania. Both stories are views of places where oppression and abuse is occurring. Why the choices of setting for each of these stories?
With Vera, she’s a character I relate to intimately. Normally my characters are not worthy of love, but in this case, I gave her some thoughts and memories and actions from my own life, which made it hard for me to loathe her too much. Originally, “Nervous System” was much longer and included characters based on real family members. Ultimately, though, I decided I’d written two distinct stories rolled into one, and I ended up cutting most of the autobiographical elements. Still, Vera is a lot like me in many ways. Her revenge fantasies are my revenge fantasies, and those cities are all places I’ve lived.
For “Malady of Laughter,” I knew I needed a setting where there would be a vast power differential and the hypocrisy that comes with being a religious missionary.
Do you find the settings integral to the conflicts of the stories? Do you feel you could have told the same stories in other settings?
Sometimes, it’s the setting that draws me into writing the story. For me, it becomes difficult to extract the two from one another… for the most part.
Both of the stories are stories about killers. The deaths in “Nervous System” are of animals. The scenes of the restaurant that serves live octopus brought to mind a scene that I saw on a television show called Billions. Have you heard of the now illegal French practice of Ortolan Bunting?
I’m not familiar with it –-– I had to look it up, and I read that the tradition, when dining on the ortolan, is to sit with a napkin over the head “to hide your shame from God.”
Why do you think people engage in behaviors like this for sport?
I think for many reasons. People are sadists, people get off on the idea of delicacy, of being only one of a top echelon privy to an experience, of having access to a holy grail, no matter how artificial or grotesque or heartless.
There are so many “kinds” of horror encompassing the umbrella of what makes up the genre. And there are so many ways to “classify” or group them, if one is inclined to do so. One trope or kind of horror is where “bad things” happen to “good people” or to the innocents in the story. There is also a trope of “revenge” where the bad things happen to the “bad people.” “Nervous System” had both of these in play for this reader. How much, if at all, do you think of genre when drafting a story? How much, if at all, do you think of structure when drafting a story?”
The only time I ever had to think about genre was when Michael Kelly from Undertow invited me to submit a story. The requirement, I believe, was that the piece had to be pulp, and it had to have an element of the supernatural. This was a real challenge for me, and I knew I’d have to do some research because I was lost. Luckily, I’d already met a few serious genre practitioners through you and a few other generous writers and small presses that have been wonderful resources. I’m grateful for having gone through that process of writing with genre in mind, which produced “The Devil and the Divine.”
As far as structure goes, I’m one of those writers who conducts writing at the sentence level only. That’s what gets me into any story as a writer and especially as a reader. I can fall in love with a sentence over and over. And it may be one reason why I work so slowly.
We’ve spoken about your creative process. I could not resist asking it again after the passage of several years.
My process is as mysterious now as it ever was, the only difference being that I have more faith now. I’ve noticed, too, that I like to have one reader in mind rather than a mass audience, and it’s usually someone out of my reach, an author whose work I aspire to and who I’ll likely never have the chance to cross paths with. So basically, an imaginary reader!
The other thing is that I’m more aware now of the moments when I slip into that half-dream state that opens me up to make those new connections at the core of my writing (when my writing’s any good). Those moments come fewer and farther between.
Do you see Vera as a revenge killer? What do you think of someone who kills to protect or avenge the innocent?
That’s an interesting question, and a question I was trying to get the story to ask. I think that might be the whole purpose of a story, to have enough of a heart and a cruel streak as the writer to ask the questions without ever answering them. And then, I hope, it’s the questions that stay with the reader long after some of the details of the story wash away. It puts the reader in an uncomfortable place, to come to terms with a moral dilemma, and to me, it’s an important aspect of the writing.
In the previous column Sarah Langan mentioned a quote by singer Tom Waits using it to illustrate that once a story is out there it is in the realm of the reader. How do you feel about this phenomenon? How important is an author’s intent for you? As a reader. And as an author.
Once, a writer I looked up to shared with me an essay he wrote. It was a close reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” along with an analysis of openings from Poe, Melville, and Proust, each one of these greats using the writer’s tool of defamiliarization as a way to create discomfort or unfamiliarity in their readers. I’d just started writing fiction, and that’s when it struck me, that the kind of writing I wanted to do would function not only on the story level, but at this level as well, so that once my work got into the hands of a reader, the engagement with it would be more like a conversation. My favorite books and stories are ones that leave clues at every turn, almost as if the author is speaking.
Which brings me to the laughing fever in “Malady of Laughter.” It is depicted as a real disease, as real world as scarlet fever or the flu, so effectively that a reader can almost forget that there is no such thing. The story plays with perception so deftly. What may be psychological, what may be real. For example, these bits about the fever:
“…They escalated into a riot, a clash of high-pitched giggles- the spotted hyena’s signal of collective distress…”
“…The endless stream of students, taken ill, almost as though they had organized a revolt, dozens upon dozens of girls, quarantined in the sick bay, their cackles piling and disturbed only by violent retching…”
How does the use of the psychological and perception serve the story and serve your intentions with the story?
It’s possible that I’m basically writing the same story over and over again, but in different settings and with different characters. Perception seems to be a theme I explore in much of my work. It’s a concept which disturbs me more and more, especially while we live in an era of widescale propaganda used to manipulate and destroy millions of minds, right before our eyes. In “Malady of Laughter,” the lack of self-awareness is what allows evil to live another day. It’s an exercise I’d love for the reader to explore.
I found the ending to be very effective. The perpetrator is on the verge of a discovery, on the verge of some sort of self-awareness but it eludes him and thus he remains an active threat. Sadly, threats like Theodore are not a vestige of history and are not contained to fiction. What role do (or what role can) stories play in the struggle against these kinds of real-world threat that every woman faces every single day? Is this part of why you write?
I went through a long period when I wrote only from the point of view of very bad men who exert their power over the vulnerable. One thing I keep in mind is that all evil grows from somewhere, out of certain conditions, and whatever evil arises in someone probably felt justified or even heroic to the perpetrator. That means anyone could commit the same crime if subject to the same circumstances. And that, for me, is a great motivator and one of my reasons for writing –-– to examine how far I, myself, would go.
Inna’s stories are so unique and compelling they leave me wondering just how far, as she puts it, her future works will go. Even with the incredibly high bar of the wonderful starting point of her first half-dozen or so stories have set, all full of the “fog of uncertainty”, I have that exciting feeling that the best is yet to come from her.
Daniel Braum’s stories often explore the tension between the psychological and the supernatural. He is the author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2016), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017), the chapbook Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016) and the novella The Serpent’s Shadow (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2019) His third collection, Underworld Dreams, was released from Lethe Press in September 2020 and is out now as an audio book. His novel Servant of the Eighth Wind is coming from Lethe Press in Summer of 2022.
He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Shivers 8 anthology edited by Richard Chizmar to the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow. He is the host of the Night Time Logic series, and the annual New York Ghost Story Festival. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel DanielBraum where you can find free streaming versions of Night Time Logic interviews, readings, and more. He can be found on social media and at bloodandstardust.wordpress.com
About the New York Ghost Story Festival
When the year grows old and December’s daylight departs too soon it is time to fill the dark nights with stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The New York Ghost Story Festival is an annual event of ghost story readings and discussion hosted by Daniel Braum founded in 2021, featuring authors of the uncanny, strange and fantastic from New York and around the globe.
Stay in touch at the Daniel Braum or Night Time Logic pages on social media. Visit http://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com for information and dates of the December 2021 Festival.
Visit the DanielBraum channel on YouTube to tune in live to the 2021 Festival (and other content) or watch it later at your leisure.