“Ghosts of the Sea. Strange Tales. And Coping With Loss.”
Night Time Logic is the part of a story that is felt but not consciously processed.
In this column, which shares a name with my New York based reading and discussion series, I explore the phenomenon of Night Time Logic and other aspects of horror fiction by diving deep into the stories from award winning authors to emerging new voices.
I have an interest in strange tales, the kind of story one might call “Aickman-esqe” and like to discuss them here and look at stories through that lens when I can. My first short story collection is titled The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales in homage to the lineage of Robert Aickman’s strange tales. The new Cemetery Dance Publications trade paper back edition of the book can be found here. It discusses strange tales in the all-new story notes and features a full essay on one of Aickman’s tales.
In my previous column we visited with UK author and editor James Everington about strange tales and his anthology of liminal sea-side stories. In today’s column I talk with Ray Cluley about ghost stories and more. Ray’s stories not only feature a wide range of setting-forward fiction he also writes strange tales so it is easy to see why they quickly captured my attention.
We begin our discussion with a look at a trio of stories from his latest short story collection.
DANIEL BRAUM: The first three stories I read in your new short story collection All That’s Lost were “The Tigers of Myanmar,” “The Whaler’s Song,” and “Adrenaline Junkies.”
To my surprise and delight, I found the each of them to represent a wide range of settings and each of them to be a unique and distinct “type” of ghost story.
I want to ask you about these three stories and their settings and ghosts.
In “The Tigers of Myanmar,” a story original to the collection, the first ghosts we see are the ghosts of two badly burnt girls who appear to The General, the strong-arm type leader of the country who is the main character. As the General’s story progresses we learn of his guilt over the killings and brutality he has done in the name of his country. We join him at a time when the nation of Burma is becoming Myanmar. He’s seeking divination and magic to try and stop the tide of change. The hauntings escalate in frequency and scale until the climax of the story which is a unique manifestation and large-scale haunting.
As an enthusiast of ghost stories, I’ve noticed there are many kinds of ghosts authors portray and sometimes even the unique portrayals can be said to roughly fall into groupings or category. One such grouping I’ve noticed are stories where the ghosts are a result of violence and or appear as a consequence of unfinished business. How might “The Tigers of Myanmar” relate to such categorization?
RAY CLULEY: “The Tigers of Myanmar” certainly addresses the results of violence, with those two burnt students perhaps the most graphic representation of that, with more later in the streets and in the soothsayer’s building. The story is about Ne Win, military dictator and President of Burma for a time, and his rule of Burma involved a great deal of violence, but while the ghosts he sees in the story are a direct consequence of his actions, he’s not afraid of them, even takes a sort of strength from them, seeing their deaths as necessary and/or inevitable. The only warning they seem to serve, in his eyes, is to provide advance notice that more such violent measures might be required of him. Ne Win was often influenced by superstition and there’s a line about the soothsayer he visits for guidance where he notes “the woman always predicted ghosts and she always predicted history’s repetition” and he sees these as the same thing without recognizing the lesson he could learn from it. The unfinished business often associated with ghosts takes the form of Aung San Suu Kyi, who he is afraid of, as she returns to Burma after her father’s assassination to play a key role in establishing a democracy. Her father is “the past made present by an ancestor” and as this kind of ghost, he is one that inspires and motivates her. The General recognizes this strength and is right to fear it.
At the end of the story the ghosts of the dead manifest and appear to the General as a tiger head. Have you seen or heard or read other stories with “mass manifestations” of ghosts? What inspired your choice of putting this element in the story?
I’ve not come across mass manifestations before, no (or if I have then I’ve forgotten where and the idea simply settled somewhere in the sediment of my memory), but I wanted to emphasize how many had died under Ne Win as well as how many had gathered to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi. It also gave me a strong visual for the story, with an aerial view of a crowd and the colors they provided — the orange robes of the monks alongside the charred bodies of the dead — eventually taking the form of a tiger’s head when seen from above by the General. It’s a symbol of strength which he previously saw as a positive sign because it represented his own power, but in this moment he’s seeing the strength of his opposition.
Moving from the South-Asian setting of Burma/Myanmar the next story I read was “The Whaler’s Song” which is set in the Nordic land and seas of the midnight sun. I was excited by the notion that All That’s Lost was promising to be a book of stories with wide-ranging and diverse settings. In general, how does choice of setting fit into your creative process and creating the story?
The setting of a story is hugely important to me and a vital part of the process. The world is such a diverse place and as such it’s rich with a variety of possibilities for fiction, which is a particularly great gift for genre fiction — all those myths and beliefs and monsters and metaphors. Plus, I love the physicality of different settings; the woods, the jungles, deserts, the open sea, all of it. I have a world map on the wall of my study and whereas the pins used to mark where I’ve been, now they mark where I’ve set stories instead, and my goal is to cover everywhere. Some of this is a selfish choice, for my own enjoyment, as I love researching different places and find it far more interesting to write about new things. I’m not a big fan of “write what you know” as that’s boring for me, but I do try to know what I write, and I enjoy the research as much as the writing. But I’m also trying to show that people are the same everywhere. For all our wonderful differences, we all feel fear, we all have anxieties, and in this sense, horror can be something of a comfort. It’s unifying.
“The Whalers Song” originally appeared in Ellen Datlow’s 2018 anthology The Devil and the Deep, a book of horror stories of the sea. A ghost (of sorts) you presented in this story is the meltwaters, described in the story as the ghost of the arctic itself haunting the oceans. Tell us about this ghostly concept and how you used it in the story.
One of my own anxieties concerns the environment and how much we’re all fucking up the planet, polluting the oceans, destroying the air, cutting down trees, all that utter madness that’ll mean the inevitable end for everyone. “The Whalers Song” is very much about that, with the meltwaters acting as the ghost of the Arctic inasmuch as they’re the result of icecaps melting. The death of the icecaps equals the eventual death of many animals, including us to a certain extent, but global warming also leads to the retreating sea ice releasing over a million square miles of ocean, and I use these new meltwaters to create a sort of liminal space within the ocean itself, a strange place existing within the normal bounds of the sea. As the Arctic dies, it creates something new, a shifting location that not only allows for the weirdness of the story to take place but perhaps even initiates it.
In addition to the meltwaters there are the ghosts of lost and shipwrecked sailors. There is a marvelously depicted scene of a whale graveyard where ghosts of whalers are reeling in ghost whales from a beach of whale skulls and bones. Tell us about this choice of setting and these ghosts.
The setting was partly for the striking visual of black volcanic sands and huge bleached bones. The death of all the whales is shown as something tangible, something very real, their remains presented on the beach for all to see, whereas the whalers appear in a more ghostly, less substantial fashion because rather than representing specific individuals they represent a way of life that is dying. At the end of the story, as the water recedes from the shore — or seems to recede, anyway — so more and more bones are revealed to show the full extent of the destruction caused by the whalers.
You do not shy away from depicting the brutality of whaling in “The Whalers Song.” Yet the story did not read to me as an anti-whaling story as one might expect or perhaps as I expected from a story not flinching from such blood and death. The whalers are developed and dynamic characters and even in the face of such a strongly depicted setting and supernatural elements the focus is on them. Tell us about the main character, Sebjorn.
I’m very much anti-whaling and consider it appalling that there are countries allowing it to continue, but my way of criticizing it was to present it honestly and in detail, letting the violence and butchery speak for itself without being outright polemic or preachy. Some readers might not like the graphic description, but for me that’s where the horror of the story really lies, and the rest of the story can be seen as a punishment for their brutality, that shift from past to present tense I mentioned earlier marking cause and effect.
Sebjørn, though, represents the potential for change, or at least an awareness of the situation and how it is already changing, albeit slowly, as illustrated by the postcard from his son he carries around. His son has chosen a different way of life, one that even seeks to help combat global warming, and Sebjørn, too, tries to walk away from it all at the end. The story is a swan song to a way of life, hence the title, and by the end of the story Sebjørn has come to accept this, even as it means his own death. He does try to warn Nils, though, who as the youngest and newest crew member is less interested in maintaining traditions, and as Nils has the raft there’s a chance he might survive.
The book is full of strong, well-developed characters who feel real. Tell us about the element of character in your work and process. Do you have a favorite character in this book of stories, if so, why?
Characters are the most important element of any story, in my opinion, and I think it’s particularly important in horror fiction (or weird fiction, sci-fi, fantasy) to create convincing characters as they’ll help the reader accept the stranger elements of the story. My characters might not always be likeable, but I try to make them believable, often through their flaws or by tempering their strengths with vulnerability. My own personal favorites tend to be characters who keep on fighting despite how hard life might treat them. I love both Richard and Sally from “The Final Girl’s Daughter” for this reason, Sally especially. Laquita Baptiste from “Trapper’s Valley” is another favorite, but with her it’s because of how easily she came to the story and how much she asserted herself from the outset, making my job a hell of a lot easier. I’ve a few more stories planned for her…
While the story “The Whalers Song” is satisfying taking the supernatural as true and at face value — the ending allowed me to look at it through the lens of being a “strange tale” in the Robert Aickman sense of the term where the supernatural element is unexplained and intentionally ambiguous.
It is not whales we are chasing it has never been.
Sebjorn has an epiphany near the end of the story about his son and about the crew. For you, does his epiphany push the story into this territory of questioning if what is happening is a product of the psychological or instead indeed supernatural, as a face reading of the story might lean?
Yeah, I always try to have my cake and eat it, too, when it comes to whether the events were real in an observable sense or something more psychological, and with “The Whalers Song” I’ve definitely aimed for both possibilities. His epiphany might be something that comes to him on the brink of death, and it’s possible to read the setting of the story as a kind of limbo they briefly inhabit before passing. His line about it not being whales they’re chasing alludes to it being a whole way of life they’re trying to hold onto, both as professional whalers and as men, as the story is also a criticism of an old-fashioned type of masculinity. Their job gives them an identity, and without whales to chase and defeat they’d be at a loss as to who they really are, so that’s part of it. It’s also about their need to define themselves through conflict, overpowering some of the largest animals nature has to offer, with the strange element of the story’s end showing Sebjørn that however many whales they manage to kill, nature will always be the bigger force, capable of waving men goodbye with a mighty flip of her tail. Everything that happens on the island is sort of just a version of the conversation they all had at the dinner table, but writ large and strange.
The first story in the book, “Adrenaline Junkies,” is set mostly in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and ultimately it is a ghost story too. While there is a relationship story and a monster story happening for the majority of it, the core is a very subtle and very emotional ghost story, I found.
“Promise me you’ll move on and fall in love after I’m gone or I’ll haunt you,” is what one of the main characters, Suki, who is dying of cancer, says to the other main character, the narrator.
There is a lot going on in the story and in context, what she says makes perfect sense emotionally. I did not on first read take it at face value or as foreshadowing. While the story is certainly also the story of relationships and the story of adrenaline junkies having a strange and dangerous encounter, it also operates as a ghost story, a different kind of ghost story than “The Tigers of Myanmar” and “The Whalers Song.” It is a ghost story where one lover perishes a ghost story where a ghost has a warning and acts as a guide for another.
What do you think of this category of ghost story? Tell us about the decision to have Suki appear as a ghost?
This is another example of me using ghosts in a literal sense but also with the possibility of something more psychological. The narrator has suffered a head injury at the time of seeing her dead lover, after all, so in that sense Suki might just be a manifestation of her own wishful thinking, a motivational voice to spur on the narrator’s own survival. Suki saves her in being a comforting force in the dark and she saves her in having taught her the skills she needs to climb out of the cenote, but she also saves her in giving her permission to live on without her, to love again. Suki was such an important part of the narrator’s life that she haunts the whole story really, both in flashbacks and in the narrator’s reluctance to move on, but unlike many ghosts she’s not the past trying to assert itself on the present but rather leads the way to a more hopeful future.
I was excited to see the story was set in the Yucatan. Some of my favorite stories are set there and it is a part of the world I write about. (My novella The Serpent’s Shadow coming in September 2023 from Cemetery Dance is set in the Yucatan in the 1980s)
I particularly liked the dialog to the effect of “the water is not infested by crocodiles, they live there.”
Tell us about the lore of Quetzalcoatl and how you used it for the “monsters” in the story.
Initially, I only intended to use the Quetzalcoatl because it’s such an underused creature in the genre and I wanted something a bit different. I mixed it in with the bat-like Camazotz and presented the result as something as real as a crocodile rather than mythological, just doing what’s natural in order to live, the suggestion being that the lore as we know it came about as a result of ancient people seeing these rare creatures. I also wanted to write a story where most of the “action” took place in freefall, and the Quetzalcoatl-Camazotz hybrid creature was perfect for that.
Another piece of lore is the notion of cenotes as gateways to the underworld. The story ends with the narrator having a near death experience and encountering Suki. How does the cenote lore fit in with this ghostly encounter?
As a gateway to the underworld, it would have been wasteful to use the cenote simply as a final location, which was my original idea. In an early draft of the story, the cenote was going to be a nesting area for the creatures, but I thought the poor narrator had been through enough and deserved more than a grisly, downbeat ending, so she gets an opportunity for symbolic rebirth instead, crawling out from the dark hole of her grief thanks to Suki’s encouragement and a new love. I did worry that adding a ghost to the mix might be an ingredient too many, but like I said, you can read Suki’s appearance as a hallucination brought on by head trauma, or as a fragment of memory, and in that sense she’s less a supernatural ingredient and more a psychological one.
Memories are all anyone has, something I wish I’d realized a lot sooner.
The above is a line from early on in the story that took on new resonance to me upon the story’s conclusion. I took it that Suki’s presence could be a psychological element of having a near death experience or could be an actual ghost. With that ambiguity the story worked for me as a strange tale. It was a satisfying ending that gave an additional layer right at the end.
In his introduction to the book Stephen Volk writes of how in your work you “pull the rug out from under” the reader with a turn of thought, a line or revelation that stops you in your tracks. I found this to be an astute observation. Another story that operated this way for me was “Things I Learned on the Afan Trail.”
Similar to the structure of “Adrenaline Junkies,” the lens through which the reader might view the story turns on a revelation in the ending that adds a layer of ambiguity to what has come before. In “Things I Learned on the Afan Trail” is it a coincidence what has been added to the trail head message board and thus… nothing at all or is it as the reader fears and something supernatural and diabolical is in play? Is this a result of the narrator’s trauma or are we witnessing the supernatural?
How does this intentional ambiguity work for you in the story?
The change in the graffiti is to suggest that something more diabolical was in play, yes, and though it’s tempting to think that in his trauma the narrator is simply remembering it wrong, there’s photographic evidence to prove otherwise. On a simple level, the story is about the uphill struggles and the metaphorical downhills of life, hence the mountain biking element, with an additional threat added to represent how the unexpected can knock you flat on your ass. It’s also a story about the future, though. The man they meet in the woods is something of a deranged druid who’s keen to show the way via gruesome divination, while the graffiti they see prior to him is the “writing on the wall” showing the narrator his own doom. However, in fighting the future the man seems to threaten him with, he’s able to trade places with Jason, whether deliberately or accidentally in his cowardice, and thus survives. When he sees the writing on the wall again sometime later the names have changed. On the one hand, he may have taken a lesson from the experience and is living the life he was initially too afraid to live before, but on the other hand he is living the life his friend should have had, and there’s even a sinister suggestion in the final paragraph that there might be an additional price to pay for that, an ambiguity existing as to whether “sacrifice” refers to one he’s already made or one he has yet to make.
Is there a story in the book you feel is often overlooked or is there one you wish you’d be asked about? If so, what story is that and why?
“In the Shadow of the Lightning Tree” might get overlooked in comparison to other stories as it’s by far the shortest in the collection (about 2000 words when I tend to write long) and it lacks anything supernatural, but it is actually a ghost story, albeit one without a ghost in it. Instead, the lost son and brother haunts the story in all the spaces between the words, between the lines, and in all the things left unsaid by the characters. It was a difficult one to write for that reason, as there was always the temptation to reveal too much too explicitly instead of trusting the characters and their behavior to do the work for me. In that respect it’s a bit like “The Swans” which is also a rather restrained and understated ghost story of sorts, a very Freudian one that essentially looks at the Oedipus complex through an Aickman-esque lens. The husband/father may or may not be dead, but that’s not as important as his absence and what might fill that absence. All of the stories in the collection deal with loss, but those two in particular are probably the most subtle in showing how people cope — or don’t cope — with such loss.
Ray Cluley’s work has appeared in a various magazines and anthologies. It has been reprinted several times, including in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories 2013: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and in Benoît Domis’s Ténèbres series. He has been translated into French, Polish, Hungarian, and Chinese. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story (“Shark! Shark!”) and has since been nominated for Best Novella (Water For Drowning) and Best Collection (Probably Monsters). His second collection, All That’s Lost, is available now from Black Shuck Books.
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 of his first short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales can be found here.
His collection Underworld Dreams contains the story “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning” which also appears in the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow.
His short story “Tiki Bar at the Edge of Forever” can be found in the American Cannibals anthology which was released in March 2023. Cemetery Dance Publications will be releasing his novella The Serpent’s Shadow in Fall 2023.
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, on social media, and at bloodandstardust.wordpress.com