“Magic Tricks. Nightmares. Ambiguities and Confessions”
Night Time Logic is the part of a story that is felt but not consciously processed.
In this column I explore the phenomenon of Night Time Logic and other aspects of horror and dark fiction through in depth conversation with authors about their stories.
I have an interest in discussing and exploring the strange, weird and uncanny side of the genre, 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 Justin Burnett about “leaving knots tied”, the uncanny, and labyrinths. In today’s column Matthew Cheney and I speak about his new book The Last Vanishing Man from Third Man Books and discuss the horror genre, Robert Aickman, strange tales and ambiguity, and much more. We begin…“after the end.”
DANIEL BRAUM: The first story in the book “After the End of the End of the World” has a “multi-verse” aspect of characters built into the narrative. Alternate versions of the characters are presented as the narrative moves forward. For one character, Jane, in all versions of her story the narrator tells us she comes to a glacier. Tell us your thoughts about stories both fiction and in the real world where all versions of the story despite divergences lead to one moment that stays the same.
MATTHEW CHENEY: In stories like “After the End…” and its cousin in my first collection, Expositions, it’s the patterns that matter. As you say, what remains. That’s the question. That’s the meat, the heart, the pure product. A friend who is also an editor rejected Expositions and told me that she didn’t think it worked because it didn’t have any base reality, any ground for the reader to stand on. But for me that absence is everything. I recognize that some readers may hate that — I know from reviews that they do! — but I hope there are also readers who are willing to let themselves inhabit that imaginative space, to let the story become a kind of extrapolation of possibilities.
I don’t like ambiguity for its own sake. I don’t like vagueness. But I do like to make space for the reader’s imagination, for a story to open outward beyond the limit of what I myself can put into it.
I am very fond of this notion of ambiguity creating space for the reader to interact with the story. In this column I often mention “intentional ambiguity” when describing aspects of “the strange tale” of Robert Aickman’s and otherwise. I will ask you more about this as we go on.
Yes, intentionality, definitely — but also vision. They go together, actually. The writer’s intent is not to “be ambiguous,” since that’s just a terrible goal, but rather to bring a vision alive in a reader’s mind. Vagueness is a lack of thoughtfulness. A lot of endings, for instance, in horror stories can cop out by being ambiguous when what they needed was to bring the vision to fruition. The writer needed to sit with the story and its implications longer. I struggle with this myself, and I’m not here to say I always succeed, especially if trying to meet a deadline. Endings are incredibly difficult. It’s a balancing act of trying to avoid a shallow, resolute twist while also not letting the story disperse into a fog. Even more than I look to Aickman, I look to Chekhov, the king of short fiction, whose sense of narrative balance, of tone and implication, remains unmatched.
In the story Steven and Julian, one of whom is terminally ill at one point in the story, have a love so strong and a conviction in a shared cause so strong they dream of killing themselves by blowing up a dam. However they both “leave” the cause after their relationship ends and it raised for me the notion of the limits of our beliefs and the limits of our love. It was a surprising and effective turn for me as a reader that they did not feel strongly enough to die for the cause after their love was over.
For you, in what way or ways is The Last Vanishing Man a collection of stories about love and convictions and the limits of both?
The most important thing to realize about Steven and Julian is that they are young and filled with all the passion of youth. They dream of being terminally ill together so that they can have the romantic purity of a beautiful martyrdom. They love each other as they do because they are in love with being in love. They like to Feel Lots Of Things! But they were never in love with either the cause or, in any deep way, each other — they were in love with feeling. That kind of love cools very fast, either because the person addicted to feeling must constantly seek a new high or because the person matures and learns to temper themselves.
You’re right that the book has a lot of stories about love and conviction and the failures of both. And maybe the occasional triumph? I don’t know. I am personally averse to strong feelings, as for me emotion is itself a kind of pain. The triumphs for my characters tend to be triumphs over the tyranny of emotion and triumphs over abject failure — the characters end up either cherishing a moment of simple contentment or building a life of ordinary grace. That seems like victory to me.
I am looking forward to having another look at these stories through the lens of characters triumphs being triumphs over the tyranny of emotion. When you say “emotion is itself a kind of pain” are you referring to all emotion? Are there some more painful or tyrannical to you than others? Does this imply anything about the human condition? Are there any of the stories that you feel you’ve captured this notion more to your satisfaction than others?
Strong emotion is a kind of pain because regardless of whether it is positive or negative, it removes us from what to me is the ideal state, which is contentment or tranquility. Sometimes it’s a necessary pain, sometimes a pain that provides reminders of things we actually want to remember (e.g. love) or should remember so that we can overcome them (e.g. shame). Often, it’s an unavoidable pain. Trying to avoid the unavoidable is a waste of time. The key is to recognize where emotions spring from — why am I angry? why am I elated? — and to acknowledge that, be aware, and not cling to it. Emotions are easy to get addicted to, and we can do terrible things because we want to keep positive emotions from fading away (as they inevitably do) and keep negative emotions from overtaking us (as they, also, inevitably do). I think of emotions as poison, just as I think of alcohol as poison. I very much enjoy a nice whiskey, for instance, but I have no illusions about its health benefits. Despite various claims, it’s pretty clear, scientifically, that there is no such thing as a healthy amount of alcohol for the human body. It rots our organs, muddles our brains, and encourages cancer. If you’re drinking alcohol every day, you have an unhealthy attachment to it, an attachment that, sooner or later, will cause suffering. You are enslaved by your desire for poison. Similarly, while some elation now and then can be nice, if you’re seeking emotion every day, if you feel that you cannot live your life without a regular hit of big feelings, you probably have an unhealthy attachment to this poison, an attachment that will ultimately injure your self and the people around you.
This idea finds various expression in my stories. For instance, “Hunger” is a fairly traditional horror story but has something like a happy ending because most of the characters find a kind of equilibrium at the end and the narrator, though she hasn’t achieved that tranquility herself, is working toward it.
“The people we love destroy us.” “The people we fail to love destroy us, too.” Tell me more about the Venn Diagram formed by these lines from the end of the story.
They’re probably best approached as you would a Zen koan.
Authors and others sometimes look at endings as a cycle and as a circle formed with beginnings and new beginnings. One of my favorite depictions of this in fiction is in Book 7 of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Why did you choose “After the End of the End of the World” to open the collection? And what relationship, if any does it have with “A Liberation” or any of the other stories?
This is a book full of aftermaths. So it seemed reasonable to begin it with a story where the title signals the end of everything … which must also be the beginning of something. (I don’t believe, in fact, that there are endings, really, just changes. Everything is change.) Because it is also an essay, “After the End of the End of the World” can serve as a kind of introduction or an ars poetica for the collection. The book then moves to the title story, which in its own way is about how stories end and don’t end.
“A Liberation” is the last long story in the book (“The Box” is a 400-word story that serves as a kind of coda). The melting tundra that the city is sinking into does, indeed, echo back to the melting glaciers of “After the End…” The final sentences of both stories are important. (“After the End…” finishes with the word begin. “A Liberation” is a bit less open, finishing with the winter’s conquering night.) Despite the melting of the world, entropy assures us of the heat death of the universe. For all we know, an end.
Another story “After the End…” relates to is “Mass,” which in a very different way is about how people go on with life after someone they are close to commits political violence.
The title story of the book, “The Last Vanishing Man,” originally appeared in Conjunctions, a journal known for fabulism and interstitial works. It is a story about two stage magicians named The Great Alpha and the Great Omega and the narrative begins with a passage on “what is memory and what is misdirection.” The story moves forward and backward in time skillfully and with great effect. At the end of the first part of the story there is a disappearance and then the story speeds up and moves 40 years forward in time for the narrator.
Tell me about the use of time and placement in time as a vantage for storytelling and for revealing story in a non-linear way. You do it so well.
I designed the story as a kind of magic trick. I’m really grateful to readers like yourself who appreciate it. It’s honestly a huge relief that anybody thinks it works!
That story is one of the only things I’ve ever written where I wrote out a detailed timeline, a blueprint of the story as well as of everything that’s left out of the story. I wanted it to be tricksy but fair, to produce that feeling of really great magic where you don’t mind being fooled, where in fact it feels like a gift to have been allowed to believe in the illusion — to have escaped, for a moment, into the wonder of belief. Ultimately, the story became something a bit other than that because in the process of writing it, I got to like the characters and want to just hang out with them, so that undercut a bit of the mechanical aspect, but I’m glad of that — as much fun as a mechanical duck might be, it’s more fun to see a mechanical duck transform into a live one.
I should note here that I think of Conjunctions as my aesthetic home. It’s a great honor to have been published by them twice in the print journal and twice online. Brad Morrow, the astonishingly brilliant editor, has rejected vastly more stories of mine than he’s published, but I feel no shame or sadness about this, because to be published even once in Conjunctions is the highest of honors. They have, for decades now, supported innovative, radical, strange writing of all sorts, with a truly broad vision. Brad’s rejected some of my stories for not being strange enough. Isn’t that wonderful?! I mean, it’s no fun to be rejected, but I deeply appreciate the reminder that here, at least, is an editor who values me for my weirdness. We need that encouragement from editors and readers, because it’s so easy for the insidious normalities of the world to insist on stifling our imaginations, and it’s so difficult to find people who value the truly strange, odd, unsettling. (They may say they do, but in practice they show what they want are variations on old, familiar monster movies and soap operas.)
I like how you phrased that “tricky but fair.” I imagine if a story is tricky but not fair perhaps then it falls into being “vague” in all the wrong ways, at least for what I am after in story telling. This story, in addition to being tricky but fair in resolving and eventually explaining some of the illusion, still leaves what I call an “intentional ambiguity” out there, and these are things I delight in and what I feel captures “the essence” of a strange tale in the Robert Aickman sense of the word, if such a thing is a thing. More about this in the next question.
I don’t like manipulative writing, writing that tries to pull a particular emotional response from the reader. (Although one of my all-time favorite novels is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, one of the most emotional novels ever written, and I think a good argument can be made that it’s manipulative on every page. Genius trumps rules!) Playing fair means to me allowing the reader their own space for thinking and feeling. Don’t hide stuff from the reader just to hide stuff. In fact, err on the side of always giving the reader information as early as possible. Respect the reader. Assume a reader smarter than yourself. Those are principals I try to hold on to.
One of the things I enjoy about the book is that the stories operate for me in the borderlands of genre and don’t fit neatly in one box or any box at all. For purposes of this column I am looking at them with an eye on the horror genre and through the lens of “strange tales” as Aickman might use the term.
“The Last Vanishing Man” is a both a very effective horror story and very effective strange tale to this reader. The horror could be said to be quiet horror. The magicians perform a vanishing trick that for the purposes of the story can be said to be or appear as being real. The man chosen from the audience and one of the magicians disappears and does not return. This is a horror and a mystery and the catalyst of the tale.
One of the hallmarks of a strange tale is the element of the unexplained. Is what we saw supernatural or did it have an earthly explanation? The disappearance and how it is presented operates like this for me and thus allows the focus of the story to be on the characters and how the unexplained event impacted their lives.
What are some hallmarks of a strange tale for you? Do you have any favorites among Robert Aickman’s strange tales?
I think “strange stories” are … stories that the reader perceives as strange. I don’t see a need to define. I think my own are strange stories because, for better or worse, I have yet to meet anyone who’s read my fiction who thinks it’s not strange.
Aickman is, indeed, a pivotal figure for me. (I wrote an essay about him for Electric Literature some years ago.) I am wary of the influence of Aickman, though, because it’s very easy to do bad Aickman pastiche and very difficult to do good Aickman tribute. Ambiguity too often becomes an alibi. Aickman was a minor genius, and what came naturally for him was what takes mortals like me far more work and is far more likely to end up in a fizzle than frisson.
The thing about Aickman is that ambiguity was not for him a posture or a technique. It was central to how he perceived life and the universe. I could be wrong, but I doubt he set out to write a new story with the thought, “I would like to be ambiguous at the end of this tale because that seems to me a dandy technique.” He did not write to simplify his vision but to expand it. He wrote from and toward ambiguity because to do anything else would have been a betrayal of his very being.
For me, today, at this moment, the stories that continue to resonate — or perhaps enchant (or is it bewitch?) — are “The Stains” and “The Inner Room.” If Aickman had only written those two stories, he would for me still be one of the absolute greats of English-language literature, because those stories are infinite. I don’t even know how many times I’ve read them both and every single time it’s like reading a new story. They are patterns of boundlessness.
But of course, he wrote many other stories, none of them bad, a few of them a little flat, most of them quite beguiling. I often find that one I didn’t much connect with will, later, in a different mood, reveal itself to me. For years, I thought “The Wine-Dark Sea” was kind of tinkly and silly. I reread it recently and was enraptured.
The beginning of your answer reminds me of something wonderful I once heard the musician Regina Spektor say about her creativity. To paraphrase it which I am sure does not do it justice she said she does not have to understand what is happening or how it happens for her to believe in it and create. I am with her on that and with you on there is not a need to define a strange tale. Certainly no need to define it to enjoy such a story. As a reader and as a writer I enjoyed “strange tales” and open ended and intentionally ambiguous and fabulist kinds of stories for most of my life before learning there were names one might use for these things if one desires. So while I ultimately would go with you on there is no need there still is a great amount of joy and satisfaction for me in playing the game of analysis and trying to name and categorize what is ultimately nameless.
Aickman was known for not discussing his writing and inspiration. I think what the community knows is from what little he did write about it and the recollections of those around him. There is a documentary out there which I am forgetting the name as I write this. Based on that I think you are correct in that he was writing to capture truths as he perceived them. I’m glad that you mentioned “The Wine-Dark Sea.” It is a story that… enchants and bewitches me. It also is one that I find it very hard to categorize or even reduce into a way to communicate in a short hand. So it is even more of a strange tale to me, in several meanings of those words.
That being said what, if anything do you take away from that story? To you what do you perceive is happening in the story. That is one of the delightful things about sharing stories particularly Aickman’s is the range of things we readers take away from and see in them.
What interested me this time about “The Wine-Dark Sea” was that it’s an allegory that doesn’t really work. Which I mean as a compliment. Allegory is a clunky form unless it’s somehow broken — proper allegory has a clear, one-to-one symbol system. “The Wine-Dark Sea” is obviously full of symbols. They scream out, “I am a symbol!” But what are those symbols doing? Hard to say. That’s terrible for allegory, but great for a story that is unsettled and unsettling. Often, such things can get campy — think of the worst of Tennessee Williams, or the astonishingly bad-good movie Boom! made from his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Noël Coward (a film beloved by John Waters). There is a certain campiness to “The Wine-Dark Sea,” but it’s restrained, and it contributes to what makes the story so unsettling. Mostly, that story reminds me of J.M. Coetzee, another favorite of mine, and a writer I’ve written about a lot. Coetzee got pegged as writing allegory early in his career, and I don’t think he intended to be particularly allegorical, and was probably quite surprised by the accusation, but I have a suspicion he later decided — because, in my mind at least, he’s a mischievous devil — to say, “Oh, you think I’m writing allegory? Let me see what you do with this,” and then wrote, for instance, the utterly bizarre Elizabeth Costello and, ultimately, his trilogy of Jesus novels, which are quite bewildering and profoundly strange and have already inspired a bookshelf of tomes from academics writing about them in an attempt to nail down … something or other. Such fiction fills me with glee.
Part of what makes Aickman’s strange tales and his kind of story work for me is as you say, the presence of allegory but without that on the nose one-to-one lining up. I don’t think there is a formula however what you point out is a hallmark I observe when thinking about these stories.
Moving on back to your title story I want to point out a few stand out passages:
“… the place was so remote then, people who came here weren’t really on vacation, they were after something else, some deeper escape…”
“Of course, Alice and I were escapees. Escape artists. Literally, actually.”
And this passage that follows shortly after in the narrative:
“Nobody looks carefully if we don’t have a reason to. We don’t really see each other, do we?”
Your presentation of gender and the characters’ relationships and feelings on gender is effortless and with verisimilitude. What can you tell us about the character of the magician, Alice? These passages evoke one of my favorite stories “The Men Women Don’t See” by Tiptree / aka Alice Sheldon.
We live in an era of very fluid gender norms in many parts of the U.S. — thankfully so! But in a time or place of more constricted rules and concepts, where, say, people called “men” dress in one particular way and people called “women” dress in another particular way and there are no concepts for people other than “men” and “women” … then a person whose body may be more along the lines of what society thinks is “woman” could dress in the particular way of a “man” and not be quickly questioned because the idea of such a thing is, for most people in that time and place, literally unimaginable. This is worth remembering. It’s key to some of what the title story is up to.
Illusion can be more important than reality sometimes. For that matter, maybe reality itself is illusion. Often, surface reality is the reality that matters most, the reality that causes the most effects in the world. I don’t actually believe very strongly in anything called “reality” because I don’t think we have the brains and nervous systems to be able to comprehend whatever might be ultimate reality. We do our best with what we can know. (I know if I were to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, I would almost certainly die. That doesn’t mean I know what, ultimately, gravity is or my body is or death is.) We go through life trying to hop from one illusion to another without getting too lost or too banged up.
The unimaginable is the stuff of magic. Gustav Kuhn’s fascinating book Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic offers a taxonomy of misdirection, with one of the types being false assumptions, which includes the limits of imagination. For instance, if I come over to your house and you ask if I’ll perform some amazing feat, I might request from you a deck of cards and you might take one out of your kitchen drawer. A familiar deck to you. Then, I would perform a trick for you with it, one where I identify cards without seeing their faces. You might try to imagine how I would do the trick. Maybe there’s some sort of reflective surface behind you? (Nope. You look, but it’s just a flat, dull wall.) Maybe your glasses gave something away? (I repeat the trick after you’ve taken your glasses off.) Maybe I’m actually psychic! (Cue Twilight Zone theme song. Or X-Files.) You are perplexed. I have not been out of your sight since I arrived. It’s a random deck of cards that you almost forgot you even owned. How could I have possibly achieved this impossible feat?
What you haven’t imagined is that this is not as innocent a deck of cards as it seemed. When I was at your apartment a few months or maybe years ago, when you weren’t looking I carefully and almost imperceptibly (to you) marked that deck and put it back in the kitchen drawer where I found it. You would not think I would go to such lengths for a simple card trick. You would not think I would snoop around your kitchen looking for random stuff with which to perform a magic trick maybe years in the future. Thus, without my explaining the trick to you, you would likely not imagine it was possible for me to have done anything to those old cards buried in the back of a random drawer.
What is imaginable and what is unimaginable matters. That’s why stretching our imaginations is vitally important for our lives. Knowledge requires strong imagination. The limits of your imagination are the limits of your world.
“The Last Vanishing Man” is about magic but it is also about the kind of historical and epistemological research we do when, for instance, we seek lost queer histories. How do we imagine the past? Why? For instance, what do we make of a collection of very old photographs in which men are affectionate with each other? Were they having a sexual relationship, or did they desire a sexual relationship? Were standards of friendship between men just different in the past? Is it foolhardy to attach the values of today to the ghostly remnants of a long lost yesterday? What does it mean to say yes or no to any of those questions? Can we preserve and cherish the ambiguities, the immense wonder of all we cannot know and yet desire to know, desire to be known, desire to be true or not true?
That’s what I had in mind when I wrote the story, but also, I’m sure, yes, as you say — I expect I was thinking of Tiptree. I had recently been teaching Tiptree’s stories in a college course on gender and science fiction, so I’m sure Tiptree and Sheldon — for certainly they were different people, even if one created the other — and “The Women Men Don’t See” were somewhere in my mind. Also the movie Albert Nobbs, with Glenn Close. And the entire history of the world.
Stretching our imagination is so, so important. So much of what in this “reality” what we perceive or classify as “magic” or the “supernatural” I believe is “natural” phenomena we have not yet imagined or do not yet understand or have a classification for yet. Fiction can be important in this way. Thankfully one of the areas of progress in our lifetimes has been gender norms and perceptions. And things and occurrences in stories that were strange when I was young are not so strange or out of the norm for today’s generations. Preserving the ambiguities and wonder in light of this seems like it might be an impossible task given the forward arrow of time but we still can cherish them and try to create or recreate that sense of wonder and danger and conflict as your title story does.
Wonder is hard! Too many of the roads that might lead to wonder are actually mapped by people who are enemies of wonder, who want to offer answers instead of questions. It’s one of my frustrations with a lot of occult and paranormal writing, which I read a probably unhealthy amount of, always with the hope of finding something truly strange and beguiling. But too often such writing is done by bean counters, by people with less imagination — less vision — than the average poodle. Lovecraft said something similar once, about how disappointed he was when he read some occult books and discovered how utterly unimaginative they were. (But then, I feel the same thing about horror fiction. Especially how utterly Christian it all is, even when not written by Christians. So much horror fiction is only horrifying if you believe in the Christian mythology and its moralities. Something I appreciate in Thomas Ligotti’s work is that he’s not drawing from an idea of Christian morality as the basis of the universe. Even at the level of props, Christianity has a hold on the horror genre. I’m waiting for a character in a vampire story to hold up a crucifix and the vampire responds, chuckling, “Sorry, I’m an atheist.”)
I feel like I’ve seen that scene somewhere! I also enjoy (and seek) the kind of horror that is not based on religious beliefs. In the borderlands of the genre I think is a good place to sometimes find the truly strange and beguiling side by side with the unexplainable and human fear that goes with it.
The stories in The Last Vanishing Man are grouped into four sections. Why did you choose to group them this way? What is the significance of the quotations for each section?
My first collection, Blood: Stories, collected stuff that was mostly written separately. A few of the stories, though, I had long thought of as a trilogy, but didn’t mark that in any way in the book, just put them one right after the other (“Art of Comedy”, “Walk in Light…”, “Map of Everywhere”) and at least one reviewer and some other readers found the stories too similar and tedious. It’s entirely possible that these folks would have thought the stories were tedious even if I had somehow indicated in the book that the resemblances were intentional — the stories rely a lot on a kind of free-floating surrealism I enjoy, but which many people have very little patience for — but I did wonder then, and wonder still, if those stories might have had a better shot at being appreciated if I had given them their own section.
Right after Blood, I started thinking about how I might do a second collection, and I actually began trying to write stories more intentionally to be part of that next collection and not just separate things. Thus, pretty much every story in The Last Vanishing Man has a partner, or at least a cousin, and maybe a few.
Putting it together, I began by placing the partner/cousin stories together. But this proved ruinous because a story like “Mass” ought not to be read right before or after “A Suicide Gun”, even though I always thought of them as related. But their centers of gravity are too similar. They pull the reader in the same direction. They needed to have something between them to offer other directions. Most of my stories go down into an abyss, but the reader ought to be allowed a few different abysses!
Also, very few people read story collections in order. I certainly don’t. We read around, we hop and skip and jump. By creating sections, I could signal to the reader that there is some intentional organization, even if they choose to ignore it, which is entirely their right. And, indeed, there are alternate organizations of the book that I also like. (For instance, read the first story in each section, then the second, etc. and you’ll get the greatest sense of variety.) The organization I have provided allows, I think, certain resonances. I don’t want to say what those resonances are, however, because that’s for the reader to think about. I didn’t even exactly have a sense of words for those resonances. They’re about tone as much as anything. The epigraphs help with that, I hope, sort of like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. Readers might learn something, too, by considering who the writers of the epigraphs are. Imagine those writers reading along with you.
“Killing Fairies” is another effective horror story and strange tale to this reader. In the acknowledgments you mention the “Non-fiction-speculative-fiction” of author Rick Bowes. How does this come into play in the story?
Rick is a dear friend and a secret master. His Dust Devil on a Quiet Street is one of my favorite books of all time. Like Aickman’s stories, Rick’s seem deceptively easy to pull off and are actually feats of astonishing skill. I wrote “Killing Fairies” to explore for myself just how difficult it is to write like Rick.
I also wanted to preserve some of my memories of my first year of college, because there were some amazing characters. So I gave myself the task of writing a story with as little fiction in it as possible, just enough to weave together a narrative and allow some fantastical element, or at least a hint of one. The only totally fictional character in the story is Jack, the guy with the fairies. And even he was based on a kind of character I hoped to meet when I first moved to New York, a cynical and maybe dangerous guy with nothing but contempt for conventional wisdom. The sort of person my young self-imagined as a perfect boyfriend and my older self knows is a terrible boyfriend.
So I set out to write the story and I did write the story but it took forever. Four months, six months, I don’t remember. Every single sentence was a struggle. I shiver even thinking about it now. It’s so much easier just to make stuff up! I don’t know how anybody ever manages to write a whole book of memoir. Or how Rick manages to create glitteringly beautiful and humble stories that effortlessly mingle truth and fiction. Me, I go the lazy way and just invent as much as I possibly can.
In the story the character is shown something very strange in a box that he is told is a fairy.
In folklore the fae are presented as very dangerous creatures and in this story we are told of the dark meals that are this thing’s preferred food. Like in the previous story we’ve discussed there is a disappearance. The ending reminds me of and evokes the ending of Aickman’s “The Swords” in the sense that the very end of the story is a sweeping rush forward in time and that the events of the story and what we have seen are not understood by the character nor definitively or explained to us at all. In this case the unexplained element is the thing in the box, whether it was supernatural or otherwise.
Can it be said, in stories like “The Swords” and “Killing Fairies”, that the danger and emotion and horror is present in some place other than the supernatural or speculative elements?
For me, the most horrifying moment in “Killing Fairies” is when the gay narrator’s roommate, whom the narrator has assumed to be gay, says something murderously homophobic. And maybe it’s horrifying because I lived it. Because I remember the exact moment and the exact words. I remember thinking that if my roommate knew what I was he would want me to die. That he would himself want to kill me.
I’ve never read a work of fiction as terrifying as life.
I am glad you mentioned this moment. I identified this moment as the most horrifying moment in the story and the most affecting to me in the book! I opted not to ask about it and here we are after you’ve mentioned it. I am sorry to hear you lived this and had this terrible experience. Looking at it through the lens of fiction these human things, these horrors humans inflict on each other are so much more affecting to me and so much more frightening. Both because ultimately I don’t believe in monsters, at least not with the certainty that I believe in homophobes and people who dehumanized each other. The way this happens with the narrators dreams and sense of wonder and sense of world expansion presented in the story it really just drops the floor and bottom out from you reading it. The story has such a verisimilitude and hearing your process on how it came to be it is easy to see why.
You mentioned you think Aickman was seeking to “capture” the world as he saw it in his stories (and I certainly can see that being so) and you’ve mentioned how you sought to incorporate a lot of truth into “Killing Fairies” and you mentioned your character’s relationship to your thoughts on emotions. Do you think authors seek to capture their own realities and truths in their work? And if so and for those that might why do you think this is so?
We are lonely creatures, trapped in our bodies and our minds, and writing is one of the most effective ways to cross into other minds and know other people’s feelings. Now and then I stop when reading an old piece of writing and have a truly uncanny feeling — the feeling of reading the thoughts and imaginings of someone long dead. As money allows, I collect old books, because to read a book that’s a hundred or two hundred years old, to look at those actual pages, the actual print … it’s time travel and ghost hunting and necromancy all together.
That moment in “Killing Fairies” is absolutely real, but what I don’t know is what became of my roommate. The roommate in the story has a specific fate, one I made up. This gets to the question of ambiguity. I do not know much of what became of my roommate after he moved to a different dorm. I searched for him online once, curious to see what sort of adult he became, and found a few little things, but nothing to answer the real questions I have about him and who he became. I have no idea, for instance, about his sexuality. I gave a tentative answer to that in the story because it made sense, it fits with my experience that a lot of the worst homophobia comes from people who are afraid of their own queer feelings. Reality left questions unanswered, and I wrote the story to provide myself with some answers. So even though there are ambiguities in the story, they’re nothing compared to the mysteries of life.
People sometimes ask me how I read so much horror fiction and watch so many horror movies, and I say no fiction has ever horrified me as much as reading a biography of Pol Pot or reading Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, about the Nazi death camps. Those gave me nightmares.
“At the Edge of the Forest” is a narrative about life and loss. It also operates as an effective strange tale for me in that there is real tension and ambiguity in whether the events of the story are the result of the supernatural or the result of the psychological state or memory and perception of the the main character, Bryan.
Are the mysterious letters something supernatural? Is this a ghost story? Is Bryan’s memory and perception mistaken? Is this a psychological story? Does it matter, to you or to the reader?
Those are good questions I think readers can answer for themselves as they wish. I might think of “At the Edge of the Forest” along the lines of a story I love, “Only Partly Here” by Lucius Shepard. Whether that story is read as a ghost story or a non-supernatural story depends a lot on how and where you encounter it. Read in a book called, say, 21st Century Ghost Stories you’ll probably interpret it more or less unquestioningly as a ghost story. Read in a book that does not label its genre, the story becomes something different. I love fiction that lives in that unsettled, floating world. Indeed, I think that is what life is. (Ultimately, I think we know about as much of life as a mosquito does.) I dislike fiction that settles its questions.
Oh, I love Lucius Shepard and I absolutely love that story. Life is indeed unsettled and never wrapped up neatly and all pretty in a bow. That might be the real horror of existence those who try and pretend this is so. Part of the reason I believe I am drawn to stories with ambiguity is in that way they are more like life and thus I am able to engage and suspend disbelief. Context and where one encounters a story does make a big difference. Upon learning that Aickman originally published “The Swords” in the Fourth Book of Fontana Ghost Stories along with his introduction(s) I think is a huge clue in what perhaps he thought of the story. Do you have a favorite or stand out Lucius Shepard story or one that comes to mind during our conversation?
I had the great honor to read with Lucius at KGB in New York. (It was the week of Thanksgiving in 2007 and I think I was asked because I was living in the area and nobody else was around. I certainly didn’t deserve to read with him.) We kept in touch via Facebook after that, right up to his death, which was a real blow. I love the Dragon Griaule stories the most (I wrote about them for Strange Horizons in 2012). The novella was his ideal form, and Viator and Floater, both more or less novellas, are astonishing. His early novella “R&R” also forever has a warm spot in my heart because it was the cover story of the first science fiction magazine I ever held in my hands, the April 1986 issue of Asimov’s. I was too young to understand the story, but it for some reason grabbed hold of my imagination anyway. Lucius is an interesting case, because he wrote plenty of stuff that I think is awkward or overwritten or exoticizing or even flat-out sexist, but still it’s operating on a level of prose and imagery that, more often than not, is just thrilling. He fascinates me because he was clearly drawn to a kind of machismo that I generally loathe, but some part of him also knew this machismo was no more healthy than a carton of unfiltered Camels. A lot of his best work, for me, seems to come from the tension of attraction and repulsion, and instead of solving the equation of that attraction and repulsion, it holds them together as long as it can.
Thanks to Ellen Datlow’s photo archive you pointed out I was at that reading! Lucius Shepard’s “The Jaguar Hunters” is a one of my favorite stories and a story reference often. I hope to explore more of his work here in this forum and elsewhere in the time to come.
In the second to last story in the book, “A Liberation” why is the name of the location the city the character Arkay travels across the globe to relocate to redacted and presented only as “N—”?
That’s just a cheeky nod to some old stories — many, in my imagination at least, Russian — that start off like, “A few years ago in the city of S—, there lived a man who believed his dog was the reincarnation of his mother.” I often like to highlight the textuality of stories, their artificiality. (I think we do not value artificiality enough and we value something that gets called authenticity too much. But, again, I like illusions.) While “A Liberation” was inspired by the Siberian city of Norilsk, I didn’t want readers to think the city in the story is the actual Norilsk. It’s only one letter of the actual Norilsk. The rest is blank, to be filled in by the person reading.
The scene of what the dog Arthur finds in the basement of the building is one straight from a nightmare or horror film.
Why is it important not to look away from the rough aspects of existence? How does this come into play in the story?
I don’t think of “A Liberation” — or any of my stories, really — as looking at the rough aspects of existence. That would require more of a journalistic impulse than I have. As you say, that scene is from a nightmare. I am much more interested in learning people’s nightmares than learning the facts of their lives. As a writer, I am not interested in the prose equivalent of cinema vérité. Rather, I seek to create space for reflection, poetry, prayer, and even, if we’re lucky, transcendence.
Not that many years ago, I would have shied away from any such religious terminology, but though I’m not a religious person, I like the religious impulse. It honors mystery and wonder. If I could be more of something, I would want to be more of a mystic. I’ve never read a hermit poet I didn’t like. (The great failure of my life is that I did not go into the mountains of China and become a hermit poet. Maybe there’s still time.)
I worked for a year at a yeshiva high school (I was the token goy) and one day at lunch one of the other teachers asked me what my own religion was. I said I didn’t have one. She said, with great seriousness, “I think literature is your religion. It is how you pray.” She was not teasing me. She meant it. And she did not mean it in a trivial way. For her, faith is what gets us through life. Belief, faith — without it, for her, there would be nothing. I knew that and so I listened to what she said with honor and humility. And immediately I knew she was right about me.
In moments of pain, I turn to poetry and plays and stories. In moments of joy, I do the same. I commune with my idea of the spirits of writers past. I study words and sentences and paragraphs as if they are tea leaves, portents, miracles. I seek meaning in the sounds and images from pages that attract me, that pleasure me, that scar me, chastise me, confound me. I share texts as if sharing bread. I write to meditate and to honor and to exorcise.
It’s no wonder that I’ve been drawn throughout my life to things like ancient Chinese poetry or Japanese haiku or American Transcendentalism (especially Thoreau). One of my best friends and greatest artistic mentors and compatriots is a Zen priest. These affinities are not coincidence. The colleague who told me my religion is literature, that stories and poems are my prayers, she saw it all in a deeper way than I was able at that point to see myself. I kept thinking about what she said and finally decided to embrace it.
The third section of the collection is, I think, all about these ideas. The stories in the third section are less stories than prayers. Dark, difficult, painful prayers. But prayers. And sometimes, though not in obvious ways, confessions.
MATTHEW CHENEY’s debut collection of fiction, Blood: Stories, won the Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016. His academic book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction was published by Bloomsbury in 2020. About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community was released by Punctum Books in April 2023 and The Last Vanishing Man and Other Stories by Third Man Books in May 2023. His work has been published by Conjunctions, One Story, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Best Gay Stories, Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
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.