Welcome to Night Time Logic, my new column for Cemetery Dance Online. Thanks to Norman Prentiss, Richard Chizmar, Blu Gilliand, Kevin Lucia, and the entire Cemetery Dance team. Cemetery Dance played a pivotal role in my education and exploration of horror so it is a thrill to be able to participate and share in the fun, the wonder, and the horror of it all in this forum.
While anything and everything goes, the main focus here will be interviews and conversations with the creative minds that bring us the dark fiction we love. I expect reviews and essays to come along with those conversations. I also expect a good deal of the authors and books we’ll explore will be those that we call the strange, the weird, the uncanny, and the interstitial.
One important thing my reading of Cemetery Dance books and magazines brought to me is the realization that horror covers such a wide umbrella of fiction. Much of the fiction that I write is what we might call “strange tales.” My collection from Cemetery Dance eBooks, The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, are short stories akin to what we might find in the old Twilight Zone episodes and in the same school as British author Robert Aickman. I am sure I won’t be able to resist bringing to you authors and books whose work operates with “Night Time Logic.”
“Night Time Logic” is also the name of the reading series I founded and host in New York. I believe the term was coined by author Howard Waldrop and popularized by author by Kelly Link. I’ve written and spoken a lot about Night Time Logic so I’ll keep it short here and merely say that my working definition of 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. These are deep down scares. Scares that find their way to our core and unsettle us in ways we rarely see coming…
I look forward to exploring this phenomenon, other notions of what makes horror tick, and my favorite authors and stories, new and old with you here. I don’t know where we’re going to end up but I am so excited for the journey.
To start, I’m going to share with you the latest book from an author I encountered near the beginning of my writing journey, Jeffrey Ford. In the summer of 2002 the first reading I attended in New York was Jeff reading his short story “A Night in the Tropics” The story originally appeared in Argosy Magazine #1 and was reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #18 edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant. It can be found in the collection The Empire of Ice Cream.
Horror is perhaps not the genre one first associates with that story or with Jeff Ford. Horror is ever-present none the less. Yes, Ford’s work is operating at the edges, on the borders, and in the interstitial places between and within genres. His strange, weird, and wonderful stories perhaps tend to be put in a box labeled fantasy. His latest collection, Big Dark Hole, like the collection that preceded it, A Natural History of Hell, are full of horrors. Big Dark Hole is perhaps his most “horror-full” of all.
There are many of the things we may “expect” when we think of horror in the book. Ghosts. Mysterious strangers who exact flesh as payment for arcane services. Folklore, urban legends, and folk horror. However, those expecting familiar terrain will not find it here. Ford’s stories pull the bottom out from you. The horrors come at you sideways, as they do in the title story “Big Dark Hole.” The title story is one of my favorite stories in recent memory. While it is a heartfelt and at times humorous story of youth and a lost child, the horror that sneaks up on you is the sadness of how time and change ravages us. You can hear Jeff read “Big Dark Hole” in its entirety at this Night Time Logic event. You will be fascinated by the eloquence of the prose, by Ford’s voice, and by the elements of the fantastic while reading, yet when you stop and sit and are thinking about something else you will find the subtle horrors of the stories in Big Dark Hole have stayed and are haunting you.
What makes a story a particular genre? Are there rules? Do any rules matter at all. Is it a matter of marketing? Is it a matter of expected hallmarks present? Or the subversion and re-invention of those hallmarks? Something structural? A tone? A mode? Does horror sit side-by-side or operate with other genres? These questions and more were on my mind as I prepared to talk with Jeff. I give the book a solid five out of five stars. Long time Ford fans will rejoice. Those who have never read a Ford story will find it a perfect jumping in point. Readers looking for their horrors on the quirky, literary, and unfamiliar side will be treated to and overjoyed with this collection full of stories operating on the borderlands of the genre.
Here is my conversation with Jeff about Big Dark Hole and the horrors within it.
DANIEL BRAUM: Did you choose the stories for the book? And did you choose the order of the stories?
JEFFREY FORD: I work closely with the editors (Gavin Grant and Kelly Link) on these aspects of the book. I did the collection A Natural History of Hell with them a few years ago, and there suggestions then were great. Right down to the title, which they came up with. I feel I can trust them. They have a very good knowledge of both fiction writing and the book business. That’s a great combo. It seems as though after writing these stories for a period of a few years, having spent so much intimate time creating them, that it’s good to have people with an objective view to offer their sense as to how the stories might come together and work together as a book. All that is much appreciated on my part.
The short story that opens the book is “The Thousand Eyes” which was originally published in The Starlight Wood- New Fairy Tales. The story begins and ends with reference to “the land where no one dies.” How did this idea tie into the fairy tale notion of the project?
I think for that book it was a request for a modernized dark fairy tale. Something like that. So it had to be based on an existing folk tale or fairy tale. When I got the email, I got immediately on my feet, went to the book shelf, grabbed a volume of the Lang set, can’t recall what color, opened it and exactly to a story beginning. The piece, I think, was Romanian and titled “The Voice of Death.” So that’s the one I used.
There actually really was a bar called The Thousand Eyes. It wasn’t in South Jersey along the Delaware like in my story, but rather along the route the funeral procession followed out onto Long Island as we were going to bury my mother. I don’t know where it was, out around Yaphank, we stopped at a crossroads, and in an empty field was this run down, burnt out abandoned bar, almost a night club. There was a giant, washed out, hand painted sign: “The Thousand Eyes.” I woke up the morning I got the story request from a dream of having passed that place on the way to the cemetery so many years earlier. I figured it was Kismet, so I threw it in with the “Voice of Death” and stirred liberally. This story was edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien.
Fairy tales, outside of the ones we get in popular culture, almost always have dark elements operating in them. What are some of these darker elements in “The Thousand Eyes” and in general how do darker elements serve a story and storytelling?
For as much as I can remember about it, it wasn’t really “dark elements,” it’s more like a mood that inhabits the story as I discover what happens and what happens next. “Elements” gives the idea that the dark is little particles, like you’re adding chips to batter. This is more pervasive, like a mood that runs through the entire piece, there at the inception and every step. It colors everything. Then any part of the story can seem dark.
You read “The Thousand Eyes” at the Fantastic Fiction Reading Series at KGB Bar in New York City hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matt Kressel in August 2015, if I am not mistaken on that date. Read out loud the voice comes through so distinctly. All of your stories have a strong and distinct voice. What is the connection to “You” / the real “Jeff Ford”— your voice and the voice of your narrators? You can let me know as this relates to this story as it is a question I will come back to as it relates to a few others in the book.
I have to admit, I have no recollection of having read this story there.
This is so mysterious how this happens. I know I’m part of the narrator’s voice, sometimes more than others, but there are times when I really inhabit a character in being the narrator, and that’s a very mind-expanding phenomenon. Within the story, there’s a kind of communion between me, the writer, and the character of the narrator. It’s like they’re informing me what they would do in some situation, and I’m writing it, thinking I’m creating it, but it’s the narrator’s character that is informing everything, opening the story as we push into it.
The short story “Hibbler’s Minion’s” originally appeared in the book Nightmare Carnival edited by Ellen Datlow in 2014. In addition to the “minions” who are the supernatural antagonists of the book, there is a strange… “creature” of sorts that appears in the story that evokes a “cryptid.” What is the appeal of “cryptids” to you, in general and as a writer?
My love of these entities came about from me reading so many compendiums of monsters, bestiaries, books of the strange and unexplained, when I was a kid. Cryptids are fun to speculate about. You know I’m hoping they find a Thylacine alive in Tasmania and let’s not forget the fucking Loveland Frogman, Ohio’s finest cryptid. Scott Wolven has written a great story about the latter. One of the things about a legitimate cryptid is it has to be at least plausibly plausible. And in that plausibility is plenty of space to day dream, which is one of my favorite past times. Occasionally one turns out to be real and that’s exciting.
Your stories are not often referred to or perhaps “thought of” as horror, at first. To me, even with just a brief look at them they are full of all the “elements” that horror tales are made of. In “Hibbler’s Minions” we have a traveling side show, murderous vampiric “insects,” and even a demon — all things that one might find in a “traditional” horror story. I find that “traditional” horror stories often conform to certain structures, such as having climaxes or confrontations with the “horrible thing” in the story. One I see a lot is that horror stories end with a “revelation” or even sometimes a “twist.” “Hibbler’s Minions,” like many of your stories, does not conform to these structures. Can you speak to your thoughts of endings and ending points in stories and in your stories?
I can’t do better than to say that I end them when I’ve had enough. If there’s nothing else I want to discover about the story, and if the story seems to have told me what it wants me to know, I’m good with that. Having any expectation of how the story will end seems like a drag to me. I usually like to discover the ending the same as I discovered the beginning and the middle. Always trying to avoid any kind of architectonics, some kind of preplanned, pre-prescribed set up. Others approach this in other ways.
Although a monster usually takes up a lot of the focus in a story, sometimes, it’s not the monster that the story is about. Maybe it turns out the monster is just a side issue in the story and it’s the woman who lives down the block from the monster who the story ends up being about. So the story may not end with the demise or capture of the monster, maybe it needs to go beyond that, well beyond that. It will make for an odd structure compared to the basic monster story.
One thing I learned while writing “Hibbler’s Minions” — I looked up flea circuses because I wasn’t sure if they were real of not. But they were real. Trained fleas. The reason they disappeared on the side show scene is because the type of flea that was always used in these circuses was larger than most, easily visible to the naked eye. This type of flea had been around for centuries, and its sole source of food was the blood of humans. It was the onset of the cleanliness of the 20th century that doomed the flea circus flea to its demise. They just became too hard to find as they slowly became a cryptid.
The next story in the book, “Monster 8,” originally appeared in Conjunctions issue 74 from Spring 2020, the “Grendel’s Kin” issue. Conjunctions is a journal of New Fabulism. Fabulism can be defined as: Horror has many labels and definitions and standards. In addition to all of the commonly thought of ones, I find it also is an element present in other kinds of stories operating along with and in stories that wear other genre labels. Do you find the interstitial nature of some of your work lends itself “better” to the “hat” called Fabulism?
I like the sensibility of fables, so I suppose I like Fabulism. Some Fabulism lacks all verisimilitude and I’m not as crazy about those stories, but to blend some of the effects of Fabulism in with real life, that’s a sweet spot for me.
Conjunctions 74 is called the “Monster’s Issue” and the copy for it says to expect the monster as the other, fascination and existential horror, and as part of human legacy. “Monster 8” appears alongside stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Brian Evenson, Elizabeth Hand and others. Thinking about this issue, Kelly Link’s short story “Monster” comes to mind as an example of a story where monsters are “real” in our world, and presented as another part of our real, mundane existence. In “Monster 8,” the monster we meet is self-aware and self-analytical among other things.
When writing a story like this do you set out to have it hit the mark of Fabulism? Or does it just come? How conscious are you, when drafting, of expectations and tropes, and do you subvert them and play with them intentionally?
Honestly didn’t think about any of that or about really anything else. This just started as a line and then I pushed into the fiction and discovered it on the fly while I was writing. I find in those instances I get some of the best stuff. If I can fall into a state of being non-judgmental of my imagination, rather uncritical, and have a laugh at the back of my throat, these work out well. While writing stories like this I feel a certain giddiness in my chest. An interesting aspect of this story is that the role of monster is handed back and forth from the monster to the narrator to the monster, etc. Brad Morrow at Conjunctions has responded positively to these types of stories so far and I’ve published three of them there: “Monster 8,” “Not Without Mercy,” and “Big Dark Hole.”
“The Inn of the Dreaming Dog” is a story original to the collection. If there is any question about whether a story is horror or not, you deliver us a story of a place where the only chance one has of finding it is by cutting one’s pinky finger off with rusty garden clippers as payment to the last mystical guide, who cauterizes it with his herbal cigar. If that is not horror than what is? Your “horrors” are often side by side with the fantastic and humorous as well as the fabulist elements previously mentioned. Do you think interstitial aspects like this could be a reason why stories are not initially “pegged” as horror?
Yes, there’s more than one note in them. But it seems to me that that is now part and parcel of mainstream horror, that interstitial approach. Or am I kidding myself with that? It became evident to me that a lot of horror readers were not fond of humor. In fact I’d seen magazine submission blurbs for horror publications that said “Definitely No Humor.” Amazing to me since some of the major practitioners of the genre are funny as hell — Poe, Ligotti, etc. I’d add Lovecraft but his attempts at humor are as stale, lethargic, and mildewed as his scares. When I think about real horror writers who mix it up today, I’m thinking of Stephen Graham Jones, Laird Barron, Kaaron Warren, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Victor Lavalle, A.C. Wise, Livia Llewellyn, etc. They’re playing with a full deck of effects and torqueing up the horror by torqueing up the realistic in all its aspects.
Do you feel endings of stories have to have a conclusion or resolution? What do you think about stories with endings that act as a lens to re-examine all what has come before? And stories that while are an end-point provide satisfaction and a feeling that the story goes on?
Most instances of a neat conclusion or crescendo-like resolution in a story are instances where the writer should have written an essay. Yes, there are instances in fiction, of course, where that rule can be subverted, but I feel like a story is over when none of the characters have anything worthwhile left to do or to say. Abrupt endings can be cool. The writer Junichiro Tanizaki is a master of them in books like Diary of a Mad Old Man. It strikes me now that I’ve seen that technique used in quite a few great Japanese works of fiction — Abe does it a lot as well. Other types of endings that are sweet are ones that leave a certain sense of ambiguity. But, in reality for an ending to work for a reader it has everything to do with the writing of the story — the vision of it and the way it eventually is composed.
“Monkey in the Woods” is a short story original to the collection. It is set on Long Island and references the infamous Round Up carnival ride in its setting. It is one of several of your stories that looks back through the lens of the magic and the horror of childhood, specifically examining a supernatural event after the passage of time. It was great to have you as a guest and a reader at the first annual New York Ghost Story Festival this past December (December 2020). Picking up on one of the topics we talked about there, does a ghost story have to be anything other than… fun?
A ghost story, for my money, has to be more than fun. Otherwise, you’ve got Casper the Friendly Ghost, and I totally don’t give a shit about anything Casper does. Or I should say, I give as much of a shit about what Casper does as anybody else I don’t know.
For a ghost story, you don’t necessarily need a ghost, all you need is a haunting. I remember in that discussion you mention, Brian Evenson and I were talking about instances of ghost stories that were never obviously more than haunting, or never materialized as anything more — like “The Pedersen Kid” by William Gass or “The Black Room” by Updike. There’s a threat, you can’t see it, but it’s weird or dangerous or makes you anxious. On the other hand, if you’re talking about it being fun to be titillated by something weird or frightening, yeah, I think that might be the same thing I’m talking about.
What is the appeal of the ghost story for you? Why are they so enjoyable and enduring?
They are about places where the boundaries between life and death are weak and certain energies — call them spirits if you like — slip through from the other side and they tell you something. It isn’t necessarily something important or philosophical or profound. It might be something errant, banal, chaotic. It’s always different with each haunting.
“The Match” is a short story original to the collection. This is another story where the characters appear to be you and your wife, Lynn. How did this come about? The intentional usage or ambiguity allows for both literal and metaphorical interpretations of the story and meta-aspects and interpretations. There are a lot of details in this story that appear to be autobiographical (or appear intended to come across as such). Of course, all a good story has to be is… fun, first and foremost. What is your thinking on this?
I was thinking one day that it would be cool to write a piece based on the Bible stories I remembered reading years ago. When I say based on, I mean very loosely. I just thought about wrestling an angel and it took off from there. I made it contemporary and set in the partial reality of our lives and went with it. It quickly showed me, as I wrote, that it also wanted to be about teaching. I was thinking a lot about teaching Zoom classes. This was during the pandemic. So I snatched that idea on the run. It blossomed into a weird story about how it feels to know that at some point, you might have to lay down your life’s work and live beyond it at least for a while.
It is also another story with humor juxtaposed against the darkness. Humor can be so difficult, does it come naturally to you?
The one thing that somebody told me along the line, another writer, it might have been John Gardner, is that the humor has to come from the characters and whatever situation they’re in, not the author. Characters are funny. Authors think they’re funny. The difficulty for me sometimes is that I am my own character. So me as the writer can’t be funny, but as a character I can. How fucked up is that? The contemplation of fiction writing and how it works can put the mind in a pretzel. It should probably be a mandatory class in the Philosophy department.
“From the Balcony” is a short story that originally appeared in the anthology Final Cuts edited by Ellen Datlow in 2020. This is another story of “adulthood” viewed through the eyes of young narrators. Something I call “intentional ambiguity” is at play in this story where the tension and momentum is the reader trying to gain a hold of the mystery of what is going on. What is the joy of this kind of story for you? Also, the story ends with a nudge or a flourish or “wink” of what the reader has seen. Can you talk about this kind of ending in general or specifically to this story?
The story as requested had to be a scary thing about movies. So I wrote a horror movie and ended it with a classic horror movie ending, like the arm coming out of the grave in DePalma’s Carrie and the end of a million other flicks made between the ’70s and ’90s where the end is a twist toward the dark side. The way the story is written it depends a lot on seeing concrete detail –— very cinematic. I saw it as a movie in my head. I definitely had in mind the influence of German Expressionist Cinema, the silhouette, the absurd, and shadow animals.
“The Jeweled Wren” originally appeared in Echoes: The Saga Book of Ghost Stories edited by Ellen Datlow. You read this story as part of the Night Time Logic series at KGB Bar back in June of 2019. Readers can follow check out your website to hear that event along with you reading the story in full if they wish. “Thanksgiving,” which is also a ghost story, appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Can you tell us about the take on the ghost story you went with in these two stories?
At a point in “The Jeweled Wren,” the ghost of a little girl tells the narrator, “Every ghost story is your own.” About a half mile across the fields at a diagonal, we can see this old farm house. Lynn and I are sure it’s haunted. We both pass it on the way to work. While having drinks on the porch, we posit theories about why and how it’s haunted. Strange things happen there — somebody, once in a while, puts a potted geranium out on the porch. There’s nobody living there, so who could it be? But still, there it is. And the flower isn’t ever “taken in” but evaporates in the heat of the day. The couple in the story share some aspects with Lynn and I, and the haunted house and our house and where they are situated across a field from each other is the same. It was like the story already existed and it had been waiting around for decades for a narrator. I inhabited the story and in the process it became some part my haunting.
You asked about “Thanksgiving.” I totally don’t consider Uncle Jake a ghost. To me he’s more a physical entity. A ghost doesn’t melt into a pile of shit. Uncle Jake is like some kind of energy caused by the decades-long tradition of a Thanksgiving party to coalesce into a being. He isn’t necessarily a monster. He just seems innocent and shy and enjoying the company of others. The diners at the Thanksgiving day gathering reject the entity they’ve inadvertently given life to.
I heard you read the title story from the book Big Dark Hole at a private reading back in June of 2019. I found it to be like magic. It was my first-time hearing or reading the story and your voice worked perfectly for the story and gave it an incredible verisimilitude. It quickly vaulted to being right up there as perhaps my favorite short story of yours — right up there with my favorite, “A Night in the Tropics,” which originally appeared in Argosy Magazine‘s Fall 2004 issue. “Big Dark Hole” originally appeared in Conjunctions 74. It features both a young narrator and the same narrator reacting to the events through the lens of time.
We’ve spoke a lot about genre and category and type of story in this interview. I find “Big Dark Hole” to be the story that to this reader both embodies all those categories and combines and transcends them — and is thus a truly uncategorizable story, or one that is a true one-of-a-kind “Jeff Ford story.” I do encourage all readers of this if they are going to only read one Jeff Ford story to choose this one. And I submit that this story alone is worth the price of and reason for a reader to purchase this book.
The one question I will ask is: Can you tell us about some of the characters we encounter in this story? I recall you telling your audience that some of them with the colorful names were real persons or based on real persons…
All of the characters are based somewhat on people I knew when I was growing up. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if I’d just used their real names since most of them are no doubt dead by now. The story is also based on a true incident that I thought was an interesting story, but it struck me while I was writing it that the story and the people that were the characters would all eventually disappear from the consciousness of humanity in a fairly brief time. The story has something to do with the wonders of the past, things that floored you or frightened you or loomed large in your younger years — how brittle these things are, how given to disintegration and eventually complete vanishment. One of the things I noticed about this story after it was published was how wonky the structure of it is. One of those stories I totally wrote on the fly. If I’d stopped to think about it, plan it, brainstorm it, get beta readers, etc, it never would have seen the light of day. I trusted the story to tell itself and it did, and the structure is right for it, even if it’s wonky.
“The Five Pointed Spell” originally appeared in Horror Library Volume 6. This is a fitting story to close the book as, like many of the stories, it features Jeff Ford and his wife, Lynn, as characters. I found the “meta” story elements to be nicely done here and made the reader question if the story I was reading was indeed the story the Jeff Ford of the story is referring to. While the story shares the familiar Ohio setting and the structure of an ending point without a big “wrap up” it is a bit of a departure in that there may be nothing supernatural going on, or the supernatural is always one step removed or out of the frame or off the page. Can you tell us about that element of presenting what might be supernatural elements in the story and these choices? Also how it works for you as the last story in the book?
I wanted to capture the feeling I had when I got to nowhere Ohio after living in Jersey for 30 years, and was trying to sense and capture the sentience I felt in the land and the history of where I was. All around me were sort of symbols and instances of insight. The farmland, oceans of corn and soybeans, the 120 year old house we moved into, the customs, etc. I felt like there were clues everywhere that I just was too new to it to grasp. I was reading a book at the time about the area and there was a section on Hex Magic, Powwow, that had been brought from the old country and grown up amongst the Amish and Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I don’t think that people know that there are more Amish in Ohio than Pennsylvania. In any event, spells were on my mind for a while.
This story was first published by Eric Guignard in his Horror Library. The story tries to get at our relationship to the supernatural, which seems to me to be everywhere, but rarely comes to anything. My friend Barney, a character in some of my stories, tagged this as “the banal of the paranormal.”
Thanks so much, Jeff. Wishing you all the best with the new book. Big Dark Hole is out now from Small Beer Press and is available from your favorite bookseller and wherever you buy books.
Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, The Shadow Year, The Twilight Pariah, Ahab’s Return, and Out of Body. His short story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, A Natural History of Hell, and The Best of Jeffrey Ford. Ford’s fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and been widely translated. It has garnered World Fantasy, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Nebula, and other awards. His latest collection of stories Big Dark Hole is out from Small Beer Press in July 2021. His website is: well-builtcity.com
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