“Velocity. The Nature of Ghosts. Life. Existence and Extremities.”
Night Time Logic is the part of a story that is felt but not consciously processed.
This column explores Night Time Logic and other aspects of horror and dark fiction through conversation with authors ranging from favorites and award winners to underexposed talents and new comers.
I delight in exploring the strange, weird and uncanny in fiction particularly the kind of story one might call “Aickman-esqe.” My short story collection is titled The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales in homage to Robert Aickman’s strange tales. The new Cemetery Dance Publications trade paperback edition of the book can be found here. Included are all-new story notes discussing strange tales and an essay exploring one of Aickman’s own.
In my previous column I spoke with Matthew Cheney about strange tales, Robert Aickman, and more. In today’s column Kathe Koja and I speak about ghosts. Life. Existence. Her short story collection Velocities, and more. We begin with a road trip.
DANIEL BRAUM: The story “Road Trip” originally appeared in the World Fantasy Convention Guest of Honor Program Book for 2002 and the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 16 edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I was on a road trip of my own when I picked the story as the first to read from Velocities, your 2020 short story collection from Meerkat Press.
There is more than meets the eye than the face value of the story and (spoiler warning) the reveal is that “Road Trip” is what I’m calling a “go-into-the-light” kind of ghost story.
We’ve had a chance to talk about some of your other ghost stories and some of your favorite ghost stories when you were a guest at the New York Ghost Story Festival. What for you is the appeal of writing stories where the afterlife or the perception of such come into play?
KATHE KOJA: I love your interpretation of this story! I hadn’t thought of it as a ghost story before, but it certainly functions as one — and the central haunting, of guilt and grief, is relentless. And it begs the question, do we choose our ghosts, or do they choose us?
And this question is very much on my mind right now as we talk, since I’m writing Catherine the Ghost, a revisiting of the immortal Wuthering Heights from the perspective of its central, entirely spectral, main character, Cathy Earnshaw. I’m investigating, and imagining, not only what is a ghost (a bodiless entity? a form of energy? a creature mentally created by someone who believes there is an afterlife? or fears it?) but why is a ghost? To exist in any form takes effort, so why would a ghost choose to exist in a way that interacts with the physical world? What would be the point, the focus, the reward?
The title “Road Trip” works so well as it operates as a new lens to see the story after it is complete and aids in the misdirection that is in play. The second part to this question is what is the appeal of the ghost story for you as a reader and for readers?
I love ghost stories, as a writer and as a reader, I grew up loving them — like M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to you, My Lad,” and all the vengeful nuns and screaming water sprites and dolorous entities that freaked me out as a kid — and their constant appeal, through time and across cultures, means they must be speaking to something universal in humanity. We know, and we do not know, that there might be something else, something other, on the other side of life; or that there could be. And we want to know what that is, because we’re all going there one day.
The stories in the book are grouped into five different sections which are titled: “AT HOME,” “DOWNTOWN,” “ON THE WAY,” “OVER THERE,” and “INSIDE.”
Tell us about these five section divisions and why you chose to group and present the stories this way.
I thought it might be useful to readers to divide the stories into mini-books, each with its own theme — the moments, the places we meet the strange or the threatening or the most inexplicable may be the closest to us, like “At Home,” or where we go to get outside of ourselves, like “Downtown” or “Over There,” or they may follow us “On the Way,” or they may be fully inescapable, because they come from “Inside.”
I followed my instincts and curiosity, I jumped around through the different sections when choosing the initial order I read the stories for the first time. The second story I landed on was “Eventide” which opens the book. It is also a “road trip” story.
On the surface, and to generalize to avoid spoilers, “At Eventide” is the story of a woman who makes very special “boxes.” The story deals with violence and the aftermath of brutality. It also depicts art and magic. Here are three questions on “At Eventide.”
What is the power of depicting and facing violence and darkness such as the kind the main character faced in Eventide in the written word?
To develop a useful response in the face of cruelty and violence, we need to consider the ways that cruelty and violence may, or can, confront us: we need to have a useful arsenal of responses if, when, the monster comes calling. And to do that it helps to have examples, ways that worked, or didn’t, to compare. Reading is both the safest and the most adventurous way to do that, because reading asks, demands really, that we participate in a particularly focused way; reading makes us think. And thinking makes us ready to respond.
Follow up to this is what is the power and importance of art and creation in the story and in our world?
In “At Eventide,” the main character uses art to react to trauma: the trauma of others, people who come seeking her help, who ask her to make these boxes for them; but also to respond to her own very indelible experience of shattering pain and cruelty — that we see, as the story continues, is not entirely finished.
Art is serious play. Play can allow us to approach and process the unimaginable and the dire — kids know this instinctively — so drawing, writing, sculpting, singing, working with wood or flowers or food, in whatever way, is a tool and a balm for us. Making makes us whole.
A hallmark of weird fiction and strange tales I find is that the “ecology of the supernatural” or the “rules” of what magic or otherwise may or may not be taking place is not explained. Author and Editor Jeff Vandermeer in his quote for Velocities said you are “A modern genius of weird and dark fiction” and I agree. What can or what do you wish to tell us about the boxes in “At Eventide”? Do you have any examples of “magic” in every day life you wish to share?
If you ask someone, anyone — try it and see; or ask yourself — ask them, “Has something ever happened to you that you can’t rationally explain?” they’ll have an instance, a coincidence, a moment of startlement light or dark, to share. Those moments, we can call them synchronicity or serendipity or good luck or bad luck or fate or answered prayers, or magic, the fact is they happen all the time. Life, existence itself, is talking to us, all the time. Because if magic is going to operate at all, that’s where it’s going to be, exactly where we are.
As for the boxes in “At Eventide,” they operate in that same realm of the everyday and the unexplained.
“Coyote Pass” is a story that appears in the “On the Way” section of the book. If I am not mistaken it is original to the collection.
Like “At Eventide” this story is set in the desert and also the in the surface level of there is someone who is dying: Anne Clay’s mother.
If one is playing with categorizations the story for me converges with quiet horror, weird fiction and even works for me as what I like to call a strange tale where the supernatural is not overtly explained.
What is the emotional and humanistic heart of the story? How does the depiction and presentation of the strange allow these things to come through?
“Coyote Pass” is original to Velocities. And its heart is really that of the trickster, that mythic figure who exists in the margins of reality, extending or blurring or obliterating those margins, or all three at once. The dog advocate and trainer (and poet) Vicki Hearne once wrote that this is “a pure form of being . . . poets like to poet, painters like to paint, Coyote likes to trick.” And “Coyote Pass” operates on those same principles: whatever you think you’re seeing, like Anne in the story, you may not be. Or you may, but it may be something else entirely. The feeling of being past all boundaries, in a situation where you’re very much not in control — is it all just a trick? For whose benefit? Or is it just a pure form of being?
The story “Fireflies” originally appeared in Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction. While it is an earthbound story, a conversation between ex-lovers, I see the echoes and reflections of the cosmic in the story.
The theories of physics and observations of astronomers are infinitely fascinating to me, especially where they show our lack of understanding of so much, almost everything. Do you believe the universe is expanding? Or contracting?
Astronomy fascinates me too, and physics, those rules of everything, almost none of which we understand fully, or maybe ever will, or ever can. Which is where we are with human interactions, too, isn’t it — we operate on a basis of shared understanding, until suddenly, we don’t. The couple in “Fireflies” have been very close, at varying distances, for a long time, and now the distance is about to become greater than either one can really fathom. When we reach that point with someone we love, where do we go, from there?
And love is like physics, it operates under all possible conditions. Including expansion and contraction.
“Fireflies” has many earthly parallels to the cosmic. What are some things from where you draw inspiration?
There’s really nowhere it isn’t! It’s always that question of, what do I see, what am I looking for, what story or book or event is trying to come to life, and how can the things I see help me to facilitate that, get it written down, make it happen? I never know where those things will be, and sometimes I really have to wait, wait, wait until what there is comes to me, but I always know it when I see it. That little inner ting! like Oh quick, grab that, you need that!
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with you about the title story, “Velocity,” at the New York Ghost Story Festival. The story about “the Red House” and family trauma operates as such an effective haunted house story, and ghost story, and tale of human trauma. Why did you choose this story, which original appeared in Ellen Datlow’s anthology The Dark as the title for the collection?
My first story collection was called Extremities, and I saw this book as being in a kind of dialogue, a conversation, with that collection—that’s one reason why “Pas de Deux” appears in both. Extremity speaks of traveling to the limits, and velocity is what gets you there.
And the story “Velocity” is all about that unstoppable motion: that beating heart of a house, its cracked crucifix and useless gun, and the characters speeding toward confrontation, again and again and again and again. To become trapped in that kind of repetition is as dark as it gets.
Why are haunted house stories so appealing? And how did you present and or subvert the trope in the story?
I took that trope very seriously in “Velocity.” Energy is meant to flow — and to carry us with it — and when it gets trapped, or traps itself, then haunting happens. And the places where that can happen to us, all of us, in the form of memories or grudges or losses or regrets, are so often the places we live, or grew up, or grew away from. Because every house is haunted for somebody.
“Clubs” is a story from 1995. What can you tell us about the publication Witness where it originally appeared?
“Clubs” is a story that does not shy away from violence. Have your thoughts and observations on violence in the world, big picture or small changed since the time you wrote the story?
Witness magazine’s slant was “The writer as witness,” and each issue would focus on a single topic as a jumping-off place for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
The violence in “Clubs” serves as a release valve for some of the characters, and a spur for another. If you asked any of them, they might all deny they were violent in any way: they might say they were only doing what their situation demanded.
My own observation is that force used against the weak or the helpless is a special kind of violence and I hate it more now than I ever did.
“Baby” is a story that I could very easily see being made into a unique film. What does “Baby” say about power and empowerment?
Agreed, “Baby” would make a dark and riveting short film. And it would be wild to see what a gifted and savvy visual eye could make of Baby itself!
The story operates at the intersection of neglect, desire, and yearning, for Jani, our teenage narrator, and for Baby, her toy and her familiar, both powerful, both powerless, both pretty much doomed from the jump: at the barbecue joint, in the hallway with the gross carpeting, in the attic and the bedroom closet, and in Jani’s dreams of her future, which to her means basically twenty-four hours ahead of wherever she is right now.
In addition to writing you create in other disciplines. Can you tell us about some of the other arts and kinds of projects you create?
Since about 2010 I’ve been creating immersive performance events, collaborating with an amazing variety of folks — visual artists, video artists, musicians, actors, dancers, puppeteers, fire performers, scent creators, installation artists — to make narratives that tell their stories with the audience. I’ve adapted my own novel Under the Poppy as well as classic novels — Wuthering Heights, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland — and done onsite private commissions (like Hieronymus Bosch in a lush Michigan garden).
And my current project, Dark Factory, extends this idea, opening the story online for readers to go deeper and learn more about the Factory, contact the characters, add to the playlist, and become part of that story.
What are your most recent releases? What books are coming soon? And what are you working on now?
Dark Factory from Meerkat Press came out last year, and its encore, Dark Park, will be out this summer, so I’m working hard on the launch event for that — think bespoke scents and the end of the world — and a new VR component to extend the immersion even further. And Catherine the Ghost, my reimagining of one of the greatest novels of all and every time, Wuthering Heights, comes out next year from Clash Books.
KATHE KOJA is an award-winning writer and producer, based in Detroit, who believes in the power of fun. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her many books include Velocities, The Cipher, and Dark Factory.
You can find her on Instagram and Facebook and at kathekoja.com/
DANIEL BRAUM writes “strange tales” in the tradition of Robert Aickman. His stories, set in locations around the globe, explore the tension between the psychological and supernatural.
The all-new Cemetery Dance Publications edition of his first short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales can be found here.
Cemetery Dance Publications will be releasing his novella The Serpent’s Shadow in Fall 2023. Braum is the author of the books Underworld Dreams, The Wish Mechanics: Tales of the Strange and Fantastic, and Yeti. Tiger. Dragon.
Braum is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology, the host of the Night Time Logic series and the annual New York Ghost Story Festival. Find him on his You Tube channel DanielBraum, on social media, and at https://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com.