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…
Hello and welcome. My name is Daniel Braum, I am an author of strange tales, a term used by Robert Aickman to describe his unique brand of stories. Many of Aickman’s stories were what we now may call “quiet horror.” Often it was ambiguous as to what if any supernatural elements were present and in play. Aickman’s strange tales operated with “Night Time Logic,” the kind of scares and elements that were felt but not consciously processed. In this column, which shares a name with my New York based reading series, I explore the phenomenon of Night Time Logic and other aspects of horror fiction by diving deep into the stories from authors ranging from award winning favorites to emerging new voices.
My previous column with Gwendolyn Kiste explored her latest book, Reluctant Immortals, a fresh take on some very well-known characters in a time and setting we haven’t seen them before: California during the Summer of Love. Today I talk with author Rudi Dornemann about his settings-based fiction and more. Dornemann’s work is filled with alternate worlds ranging from those just a little bit different than ours to those strange, horrific, and not familiar. We begin our conversation with a look into his cover story from the August 2022 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a publication that has delivered to us many horror classics over the decades.
DANIEL BRAUM: Congratulations on selling a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a wonderful achievement to have placed a story in the magazine where so many classic and outstanding stories first appeared — stories by Robert Aickman, Steven King, Kelly Link and Lucius Shepard to name a few of my favorites.
“Starblind, Booklost, and Hearing the Song of True Birds.” is a great title and a great place to start our discussion.
The title operates as a roadmap to a tale that covers a lot of ground. It also ties it to other stories you’ve written. While “Starblind, Booklost, and Hearing the Song of True Birds” is a stand-alone story, please tell us about the title and how its convention of three things, links it to the two other stories you’ve published that share the setting.
RUDI DORNEMANN: Thanks! I started reading F&SF back in middle school, so it’s amazing to have a story there, and even more meaningful since it’s a story that ties to other writing I’ve done.
The story’s title points to three different aspects of a key moment late in the story. At that point, Vitalius, the main character, seems to have accomplished the things he intended to do and he’s seeing some small, unexpected effects. He finds he doesn’t recognize the constellations, a book that’s important to him has gone to a place he can’t get it back from, and he’s hearing what he recognizes as birdsong from real birds, as opposed to some notably not-real-bird songs earlier. Some bigger things have happened as well — much bigger — but these are three that catch his attention.
The two stories that came before “Starblind” also have three-part titles and also begin with an astronomical reference. The first was “The Moonless, the Midnight Eye, and the Season of the Last Gate” and the second was “Sunfast, Shadowplay, and Saintswalk.” So, when I finally started writing a third story set in the city of Fisher, one of the very first things floating around in my brain was that it would have to start with “Star(something).”
I read “Saintswalk” for the first time 20 years ago before it went on to be published in Strange Horizons. It is one of those rare, stand-out stories that stayed with me, even after so many years and after reading so many other stories. The interstitial nature of the story is something I am conscious of now and didn’t have a word or framework for when I first read it. To me the story is a wonderful illustration of how horror operates with and within other genres.
Do you consider yourself a writer of horror? A fantasist? Or both?
I think when I sit down, I know I’m going to write something fantastic. The result might cross into horror territory occasionally — particularly if you take a fairly broad view of horror. That said, I’m not sure I’d be too comfortable putting an unequivocal horror label on most of what I write, since I don’t know that I’m necessarily giving a reader who’s expecting horror enough of what they’re looking for. However, I have the impression that a lot of horror readers have pretty diverse tastes, so I’m hopeful they’ll at least be entertained.
Around the time I was writing “Saintswalk,” I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Dradin in Love and Michael Cisco’s The Divinity Student. Those two novellas gave me a sense that there was a literary space out there where the Fisher stories would fit. Vandermeer and Cicso are certainly writers who know horror well and were weaving it into their writing in what would eventually be labelled the New Weird subgenre. (At least the way Jeff and Ann Vandermeer summed it up in the introduction to their New Weird anthology — apologies to M. John Harrison who coined the term and meant something different by it!) In the next few years, a number of books continued exploring that space, like the rest of VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and KJ Bishop’s The Etched City.
The Fisher stories have a lot of New Weird characteristics — they’re set in a secondary world, in an urban setting, with technology that doesn’t seem to be too far in the past, and they combine the day-to-day existence of some fairly ordinary characters with background intimations of vaster and more terrible things. A fair number of New Weird stories feature somewhat menacing festivals of some kind, and all of my Fisher stories certainly fit into that tradition.
If one has to pick a “box” or genre category for your City of Fisher set stories I understand why fantasy might be a likely choice. “Saintswalk” has the hallmarks of fantasy, such as a secondary world, and a certain voice and tone which adeptly delivers the innocence of the youth and a sense of wonder of the characters. What struck me about the story is the real sense of danger to these children. I found it absolutely disturbing and terrifying. It is one of the few stories that has ever done that for me. Danger and terror and fear one associates with horror fiction. and the sense of horror that can often go hand in hand with a sense of wonder. Also in the story there are disembodied entities and possession which are also hallmarks of horror fiction.
Can you tell us about the perils and dangers faced by the characters in “Saintswalk”? Also for you, what is it about horror and horror elements that work so well with other genres?
I think the level of peril evolved from story to story.
“Moonless” has a ritual that involves physical endurance and a bit of blood, but is (comparatively) safe. In “Saintswalk,” though, there’s definitely an element of risk. There’s an annual ritual that everyone goes through when you’re around puberty, where you’re possessed for a day by one of the supernatural beings worshipped in the city — the Saints who’ll be walking in your body.
I think there’s an element of that that resonates with the way that kids are gradually discover more of the world as they grow up, both good things and bad. There’s curiosity, wonder, there’s this new experience you get to participate in. The kids are certainly looking forward to it. Their families, neighbors, teachers, the city as a whole all support and reinforce that attitude. But the younger sister who narrates the story becomes aware of a risk that no one ever talks about — that the Saint might not give you your body back at the end of the festival.
By the time I got to “Starblind,” the level of danger had moved up again. This time, the child has had their life irrevocably changed by the festival — Vitalius’s brother Aurelin has been taken over by a power of prophecy.
There’s a bit early on in the story that mentions how the acolytes who take care of the prophets carry little notebooks that long ago would have been used for recording prophecies but now are just a badge of their role. At this time in Fisher’s history, people are being turned into prophets, and it’s no longer for any practical purpose — exploitative as that would be — but purely because this old custom keeps persisting.
I think one of the most horrifying things in the real world is the ways that the big systems of the places we live and the ways we live with each other (all the government, politics, culture, religion) too often wind up harming people in ways that aren’t really seen and keep continuing on decade after decade. It’s even more striking, and even more tragic, when the people who are harmed are those who have the least agency to escape it.
“Starblind” shares the setting, the City of Fisher with “Saintswalk” and “Moonless.” Tell us about Fisher and some of its festivals, and rituals, and prophecies.
It’s a city with a long history — probably longer than almost anyone who lives there knows. It’s full of odd, mysterious places, and the occasional labyrinth. There are ghosts, there’s a catacomb under the common in the middle of the city, and, further underground, an amusement park of clockwork automata that you get to see in the course of the story. There are eight to ten major festivals every year, and they all involve some kind of transformation of the city and its inhabitants. Which I suppose is true of festivals anywhere, but that’s heightened in Fisher.
I wanted the world to feel complicated, like things have come and gone, changed and changed again more than anyone realizes. In the real world, I think everything happens for more than one reason, so a fantasy world should also suggest that complexity. I think the richest imagined worlds are those that feel like there’s more going on beyond of the frame of any one story.
A steam-driven oracle appears right at the beginning of the first story, “Moonless,” and while it’s slightly more helpful than any of the prophecy in “Starblind,” most of its pronouncements are equally cryptic and tangled. I do keep coming back to oracular and prophetic statements in a lot of my stories, even the non-Fisher ones. I think it’s very human to look around us for feedback, for perspective on our lives, even if we look in unlikely places. Plus, bringing in an oracular element gives me an excuse to veer off into non-sequiturs and have them resonate with what’s going on. Not that the oracles ever wind up being much help to the characters in my stories in terms of helping them navigate the plot.
Vitalius Cotton and his brother Aurelin are two of the main characters in “Starblind.” When the story begins, we encounter Vitalius while he is visiting Aurelin in a ward of sorts where he lives with others who are “disabled” like he. By means of an introduction to the story can you tell us about Vitalius, who he is, what he does and what is it that he wants when we first encounter him?
Vitalius is very much a history nerd, and Fisher’s history is so long and complicated, with so many things that are kind of half-explained or unexplainable, that there is a great deal for him to get lost in. He’s gotten to the point where he’s one of the people with the most comprehensive knowledge of the city’s history. As gradually comes out in the story, Vitalius’s reaction to what’s happened to his brother is what led eventually to his life being so focused on the city’s history.
Fictional books and tomes are an element we sometimes see in fantasy and horror fiction. What are some of your favorite fictional books? In your readings and research have you come across any odd, rare, or noteworthy ones to mention?
One of the things I really like about the writer Jorge Luis Borges is the way he mixes facts he’s made up with facts that extremely obscure but real. Many of his stories have to do with books that don’t exist, like the Book of Sand, which is infinite, so once you’ve read a page, you can never find it again. Or the books referenced in his story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” some of which are forgeries, and by the end are rewriting reality are turning the whole world into a forgery.
Borges liked to retell an anecdote about the 1001 Nights and how, supposedly because a scribe lost track of what they were doing, there’s a story in the book that starts retelling the story of the book itself and creating an infinite loop. I think most readers assume Borges was just being Borges, and simply made this up — it’s too perfect.
Which is also what I thought until, about a year ago, I found Evelyn Fishburn’s book Hidden Pleasures of Borges’ Fiction, which contains an essay where she tries to track down an edition of the Nights where Borges could have read this story — and she succeeds! Apparently, if you find the right, very rare edition, you can find the story in volume 6 of the extra supplementary volumes, right there in a footnote on page 199. As it works out, I have a copy of that very volume, thanks to a luck eBay or library book sale purchase a few years back. Unfortunately, it isn’t the super-rare printing from Benares, it’s just the not-so rare edition printed in Boston, so it doesn’t have the infinite loop story, and my page 199 just has a couple of footnotes on unusual words.
As far as I can tell, Fishburn appears to be a serious scholar, and the rest of her book seems legit (and it’s really good). However, I can’t help but having vague misgivings that maybe this respected professor has been studying Borges so long that she’s completely fallen under his spell, and this article is an elaborate Borges-style hoax.
Please tell us about the book A Brief History of Fisher and how it comes into play in the story?
Vitalius is a very serious scholar, in a tradition of very serious scholars who write multi-volume opuses on very esoteric topics. So that’s mostly what he’s researched and written, and he’s gotten the point where, in his time, he’s the most knowledgeable person about the city’s history. (Give or take Osier, and maybe a few ghosts.)
A publisher commissioned him to do a short and relatively readable history of Fisher, so that’s the Brief History. Apparently, it sold well enough that he’s working on a revised edition. (Or, okay, at least he thinks it’s sold well enough. Vitalius’s knowledge of historical Fisher may not extend to the ins and outs of its current publishing scene.)
He’s carrying a copy of the book when he’s caught up in the events of the story, and it becomes a bit of an anchor for him, a token of what he’s made of his life, and might now be losing.
Other realities and “wizard-like” figures who research and experiment with and tamper with other dimensions and other realities are character types often seen in the classic “weird fiction” stories in the early part of 20th century. Please tell us about the character “Osier” and how he sets Vitalius’ journey and challenges into play?
Osier is a character who keeps coming up in the Fisher stories, and he’s gradually become a more and more pivotal character. He’s been around a long, long time, usually just seen generally puttering around. Whenever one of the city’s frequent festivals happens, he’s always the one making sure that everything goes smoothly and happens in the proper way. I don’t want to say too much about why he’s like that (it would go too far beyond the story at hand), but he’s got a strong motivation to make sure Fisher endures. He’ll always chose to act in ways he feels will help the city as a whole to continue even if specific individual people don’t necessarily continue.
In “Starblind,” he’s the one who offers, very persistently, a way that Vitalius can undo what’s happened to his brother. It’ll be a change, and in many ways a resetting, but Osier himself can’t act that directly on the city. He needs someone else to set things in motion, and he’s figured out that Vitalius has both the motivation and the knowledge needed to revive a certain old festival.
Tell us about The Festival of the Nines and the masks which we see in the illustration on the cover of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
First, the cover is great –– amazing work by Mondolithic Studios.
The Festival of Nines is one of Fisher’s many festivals. All I knew when I started the story was that it had been banned for many years, and even though not much is remembered about it, it definitely has an air about of being ominous, menacing, dangerous — even more so than Fisher’s other festivals! That’s also about all that Vitalius knows about the festival at the start of the story, even though he knows so much about the rest of Fisher’s history.
The masks are a key element in the festival. For some reason that isn’t quite clear, they weren’t destroyed when the festival was banned. No matter what happens to the festival over time, however it changes, there’s something about the masks that ensures at least a few of them will be always be around.
Alternate realities, re-shuffling of reality, and traveling between realities strikes me as a science fiction notion and a hallmark of science fiction stories (although it is certainly used and present in many fantasy and horror stories). Fisher’s guilds and other aspects of the world give the story a fantasy feel. And the masks, the possessions, and many dark aspects bring a sense of horror to the story.
Can you tell us about the interplay of these elements?
Fisher has a long history, and you can see traces of that past in the present time of the story— — particularly if you know that past as well as Vitalius. But, at the same time, as Vitalius and we come to see, there’s a slipperiness to Fisher’s history.
There’s a number of ways that supernatural elements have been absorbed into the city and its rituals. Even though they’ve become commonplace, or at least been made a little more comfortable through being experienced in the context of special holidays, they’re still very powerful, and very random, or at least well outside both human control and human logic. They can wind up affecting someone’s life in very profound ways, if you aren’t careful, or just aren’t lucky.
I think part of the reason that stories about alternate histories goes back to a basic fascination with cause and effect, and the way those effects can be wildly unintended. That’s a story driver that goes all the way back to Greek drama and probably long before.
Time-travel stories where the present or the future is changed, are part of that cause/effect fascination too. However, often the plot turns on the idea that the change needs to be undone, the world needs to be returned to the way it’s supposed to be. Which seems to me like an inherently conservative take. On some level, they’re saying that any change to the current state of things is destructive, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how positive its immediate effects.
The change Vitalius brings about does have a number of unintended consequences — and at least one very negative consequence for himself. And that fits with the way that the festival, the forces its released, and the effect it’s having on everyone around him, are all unstoppable once Vitalius sets them in motion.
The three City of Fisher stories were written over many years. Can you tell us about writing stories over time and about writing stories that share settings and characters?
One of the things I really enjoyed in writing a new Fisher story was filling in meanings and backstories for what were just passing references in earlier stories. I’ll come back to something like a made-up book title, a place name, a historical event, or a character, and build it out, figure out what it means and what it implies about the city. It’s a way of retroactively expanding the previous story while creating the new one, making the whole world feel richer and more lived-in.
In a way, the kind of poetic, almost surreal style of “Moonless” helped to set up the potential for the later, more grounded stories. There were so many evocative, intriguing things that I hadn’t really imagined beyond the very limited span of that story, with its narrator who tends to report more than explain. Those details became invitations to connect the dots I had in new ways and then keep adding more dots.
In “Starblind,” Vitalius’s historical knowledge gave me plenty of reasons to throw in new bits of Fisheriana that I’m sure I’ll be able to return to later. (Why did Rescand, the gentlewoman pirate, avoid the city for so many years and what finally brought her back? What secret melancholy was Renyr Oltham hiding behind his spontaneous sonnets and leopard-print coats? What did Treminster do when he got to the Ring Islands — and why are they called that anyway, since they aren’t actually arranged in a ring…)
Over the past few years you’ve been taking a deep dive into the notion of setting. Please tell us about your project “Notes from an Imaginary Place.” How did it come to be? Tell us how each of the stories works with setting.
I’d been wanting to do some kind of serial using an email newsletter with a parallel podcast, but I had trouble coming up with a true serial. All my ideas got too involved, with too many characters and plot lines, and I wasn’t sure they’d work once I broke them up into short sections and sent them out every week or two. So I wound up with the idea of doing a series of stories that work in a similar pattern.
Each story is set in a unique place — one of 26 places, because I’m an Oulipo wannabe, and I’ve got one for each letter of the alphabet. Each place is secretly inspired by an animal, using a reverse alphabet, so the Archives have a Zebra influence, the Bungalows are a little like Yaks, and the Catacombs that I recently posted have some qualities of an X-ray fish. The main character in each story comes from a different profession, which are based on another alphabet, with another corresponding opposite-alphabet set of secret inspirations.
The fact that I’m working from this alphabet prompt scheme pushes me to keep being creative. I have to figure out what story arises from having that person in that place, which can lead to some interesting story shapes and patterns. Interesting and challenging for me, and I hope it’s giving the people who are reading and/or listening something entertaining and a bit unexpected. My goal is to create little nuggets of other worlds, and to put you in them just long enough that you get caught up in the experience of someone who lives there.
I know you are a reader of Italo Calvino. What is it about Calvino that inspires? What are some other authors genre or otherwise who do inspiring work with settings?
Calvino’s writing is very disciplined, almost schematic when you read about some of his methods. At the same time, it feels like he completely follows where his imagination leads him. You can see that in the cities he describes in Invisible Cities, but also in pretty much any of his books. I’m always recommending his short story collection Marcovaldo, because it seems to be a bit overlooked beside his later, more extravagantly fantastical writing, Each of those stories, though, is a masterclass in taking an idea, some fairly ordinary event or observation in a realistic modern city and then just following a chain of imagination, following and following while the tale grows in unexpected but somehow exactly right ways.
As far as authors who do inspiring work with settings, I have trouble keeping that list from just growing and growing.
Certainly, the New Weird authors I mentioned earlier all have pretty indelible settings: VanderMeer’s Ambergis, Meiville’s New Crobozon, Bishop’s Ashamoil.
Further back, there’s Samuel R. Delany’s Bellona in the book Dhalgren, and the city of Neryona in that series, both really wide-open places that feel like they’ve sprawled enough to be real. Kim Stanley Robinson has a great knack for outdoor spaces, whether on Mars or California or some outer planet moon. Then there’s the ironic, weary, decadence of J.G. Ballard’s past-its-prime desert resort town in Vermillion Sands. Or there’s the home places of the Kesh in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, which I’ve been reading gradually for the last couple years (it’s been a good couple of years to spend with people who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now”). Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer, and translated by LeGuin, had a place that felt to me like it was halfway between Calvino and more traditional fantasy.
More recently, C.L. Polk’s Kingston in the trilogy that starts with Witchmark has a world with powerful magical forces under the surface and characters trying to change the way their society uses those forces. Even though P. Djeli Clark’s 1920’s Cairo has been explored in A Master of Djinn and several related stories, but it still seems like there’s much more to that world to explore. And speaking of djinn, SA Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy gives us a hidden city that’s home to a whole civilization of different kinds of djinn.
On a smaller scale, I love it when a writer pulls off the bravura move of conveying a whole emotional arc through nothing but description of a place. For example, Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” or the “Time Passes” section in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Is there one place on earth you have not been that you’d like to visit and or one place you’d like to write about that you have not?
One place I’d love to visit is both a place and a festival: Heironymous Bosch’s home town hosts a river parade every year or two with all these bizarre complicated boats and float contraptions. Totally my kind of thing. My wife spotted it online a year or so ago.
Two places have caught my attention lately that I’d like to write about; one exists in real life, one doesn’t. The one that exists is Yanjin, a very narrow city in a river valley in China that has me thinking about city spaces that have a similar narrowness. The one that doesn’t exist is a spiral island town in the painting “Spiral Transit” by the Spanish-Mexican surrealist Remedios Varos. I’ve started having ideas for stories that might happen in both of those, but they haven’t quite solidified yet.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Rudi Dornemann grew up in Milwaukee and now lives in Maine. His writing has appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and the mummy anthology Spirits Unwrapped. He instigated and contributed to the flash fiction website The Daily Cabal, and recently had a new flash piece appear in the online magazine Pareidolia Literary. He sends out monthly speculative fiction stories via a podcast and email series, Notes from an Imaginary Place, which can be found (and subscribed to) at his website www.rudidornemann.com.
You can hear audio of Rudi and Daniel’s conversation from July 21, 2022 about Rudi’s story here.
You can hear Rudi interview Daniel about Daniel’s book The Night Marchers for the Why? Why? Why? Podcast here.
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.