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AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE RASNIC TEM
Conducted by Lynda E. Rucker, © January 2014
Steve Rasnic Tem is the author of over 400 published short stories and is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. His collections include Ugly Behavior (2012), Onion Songs (2013), Celestial Inventories (2013), and Twember (2013). His novels include Daughters (2001) and The Man in the Ceiling (2010, both with Melanie Tem); The Book of Days (2003), Deadfall Hotel (2013), and Blood Kin (2014). For more information visit www.m-s-tem.com
Lynda E. Rucker: First of all, I want to say how much I enjoyed Here with the Shadows. In reading your prose, I was reminded by the precision and beauty of your word choices that you are also a poet. In what ways do you feel your affinity for poetry has affected the way you approach writing fiction?
Steve Rasnic Tem: From poetry I brought a focus on the image, and the sense of how just a few words can change everything, shifting a character’s perception and attitude to an amazing degree, and engendering delight and surprise in the reader. If they’re the right few words they can do as much as, or more than, a few dozen pages of careful plotting.
In my readings of British ghost stories it always seemed to me that the difference between the great writers and the mediocre ones often came down to their use of imagery. The right set of images, carefully revealed, had the ability to persuade us that the invisible was not only real, but terrifying. The best writers took the ordinary and made it something extraordinary. One of the classic examples of this is what M.R. James does with a bed sheet in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. A lesser writer would have botched it, gone too far with it or not developed it sufficiently. Imagery like that requires a sure hand or else it’s all wires and rigging and unearned melodrama.
LER: The oldest story in Here with the Shadows first appeared more than twenty years ago and a couple of others are from the early oughts. Most, however, are relatively recent, some very much so, and so I wanted to ask what may have prompted these three recurring themes or story ideas I noted throughout the collection:
1. The stories are suffused with a sense of grief toward the dead, and in many cases, the dead toward whom the living have still-unresolved feelings.
2. Many of the story set-ups have to do with a protagonist returning home (again, usually following a death) to face a past he or she might prefer to have forgotten.
3. Finally, a number of the characters are approaching and coping with their own sense of mortality and imminent death.
SRT: Some of that timing is simply because I knew I was going to at last do this particular collection, and even as I wrote those stories and they appeared first in other venues I knew they would wind up in Here with the Shadows in the end — a collection of ghost stories, essentially, and for me ghosts are about regret and death and our conflicted feelings about mortality.
But it’s a truism that writers’ subjects often reflect the stage of life they’re in, or the one just past. So early on I wrote about my childhood, and then my nightmarish dating life, and then I wrote about the anxieties of raising children (revisiting those issues as new insights arrived — for example, having four granddaughters is giving me additional perspectives on both childhood and parenting), and the next stage — well, I’m 63, and I know more and more people dying early, or caring for a disabled spouse, losing their health, preparing for that grand “summing up” — so the subject becomes a natural.
Not that I haven’t written about death before. We all encounter it at various stages in our life, and it changes us in different ways. Losing our son in the late eighties when he was nine changed forever how I felt about death — any inner calm I had about the subject blew right out of my head along with my previous sense of self and maybe a little bit of my sanity. And other losses and scares since then have shifted that perspective — my father, who I had an extremely troubled relationship with, died a few years back, and the fact that Melanie is a two time cancer survivor — these encounters change how you view mortality, and it intensifies and complicates as you grow older.
In my everyday life I don’t obsess about it (thank God I have characters who will do that for me) and I’m not one of those old guys who likes to talk about his aches and pains all the time — I’ve got much better things to do. I suppose I’ve allowed it to permeate my writing now so that it doesn’t permeate my life.
Still, as much as I focus on enjoying the now and thinking about the new things I might be doing tomorrow, I inevitably find myself in activities which bring out these themes. My mother has Alzheimer’s and is approaching her final days. I’m a couple of years away from retiring from the day job. And I’m at that stage in my career in which I’m putting together numerous collections which tend to summarise what I’ve done with short stories, and I’m at last finishing up novels which have been decades in their gestation. So a lot of loose ends are being tidied up — which feels a bit strange.
LER: Most of the protagonists in this collection also seem to be grappling with a sense of isolation, even the ones with loving families as in the title story and “Seeing the Woods”. Do you see this isolation as an inevitable consequence of being human? Or is this related to the stage in life these characters have reached, as they near and contemplate their own deaths?
SRT: I think our complicated relationship with isolation is certainly one of the things which defines us as human. Many of us fear it and fight it all our lives, and yet I’m not sure you can be a fully functioning human without embracing it from time to time and learning from what it tells you. And then at the end it’s inescapable.
I think it’s one of my own greatest fears. I was a painfully shy, frequently isolated child, growing up in a tiny and relatively remote southern Appalachian town. Even though I liked most of the people I met (and as I’ve learned over the years, they also liked me), it was impossible for me to open any conversation, to make overtures of any kind, really. I overcame a great deal of that over the years, but even today I tend to be quiet and reticent most of the time, and as a writer, when I’m required to speak or interact professionally, I still feel like a shy person pretending not to be shy.
Like most shy people, I need to retreat into isolation from time to time to find myself again, to recharge. But having a family and needing to be there for the ones I love has kept me from becoming a hermit. But if I didn’t have them I’m not sure what I would be. So often I write about lonely characters who haven’t been as successful as I have been in overcoming their loneliness.
LER: For me, you have always been an author whose work demonstrates the absurdity of adhering to labels like “literary” and “genre” fiction; besides the quality of your prose that I mentioned above, your themes also clearly demonstrate that horror and fantasy, so often dismissed as adolescent, are fully capable of grappling with the full scope of human experience. What about supernatural fiction attracts you for exploring those themes?
SRT: “The full scope of human experience” — for me that’s the key. As any shy person will tell you, “if all I am is what you see me do and hear me say then I guess I’m barely a part of this world.” I’ve always believed that a great deal of human experience was locked in our heads, informing our imaginations, filling our dreams, but also triggering our emotions and informing our plans and ambitions, and certainly the seed for much of our art, architecture, invention, engineering. But less tangible in and of itself, because all those on the outside can see of it are those by-products. So perhaps that inner life is describable only through the techniques of metaphor and surreality.
I remember reacting badly when a junior high teacher talked about how there was fiction about real things, created by writers like Crane and Hemingway and Jesse Stuart (a favourite regional writer of the time), and then there was fiction about things which weren’t real — myths, fairytales, science fiction, ghost stories. The clear implication was that the first type of fiction was the important stuff. I was annoyed and genuinely puzzled, because for me this “unreal” fiction was just as real as the other type — it was just that its true subject matter was less tangible, less readily apparent.
I liked all kinds of fantasy and science fiction, as long as it was about real emotions, about the things which really mattered to people. And the aspect of supernatural fiction which impressed me was that here was a fiction which was largely about the “real”, observable world, which focused on the ambiguities inherent in the details of that world, and in so doing took you to a different place, showed you a glimpse of this mystical realm which was beyond rational understanding. Now, I didn’t believe in ghosts, or in any aspect of the traditional supernatural — believing that when people presented such things as observable fact they were filtering the unknowable through a screen of human concepts and language, and therefore had to be fundamentally in error. But when read as the metaphors they actually were, it just seemed this could be a terribly rewarding and exciting way to write. I was less interested in scaring people — although sometimes this could be a neat side-effect of such fiction — than I was in finding a way to write about essentially unknowable, indescribable, spiritual events.
LER: You’ve mentioned that the stories in this collection in particular were influenced by some early twentieth century British authors of supernatural fiction. Can you say a bit more about that influence?
SRT: Although I wouldn’t say that the stories in Here with the Shadows are much “like” those early twentieth century stories, they are in part a response to my extensive reading in that area — my favourite kind of reading during the winter months, actually. What I appreciate about those early collections of Burrage, Benson, Wakefield, James, Blackwood, and the like begins with the physical package — these relatively short, finely made, supernatural collections exhibiting some unity of tone and approach.
And then looking at the stories themselves — careful word choices and subtle effects, quiet unassuming stories which still became the technical basis for much of the supernatural fiction which came after. Just reading these books I developed a hunger for my own version of such a collection.
Although it may seem strange to talk about “realism” in the context of fantasy writing, a lot of these stories feel more realistic to me than some of the more elaborate approaches to fantasy. They’re closer to recognisable human emotional responses to phenomena. When “normal” people experience intimations of another reality, they’re not seeing angels descending from the heavens bearing flaming swords, they’re picking up on ambiguous clues in the environment, in the lighting, the sounds and the smells, the details in a room where people have lived and died over a period of decades. Even when writing fantasy I believe that maintaining some connection with this level of reality is important when you’re trying to write about what moves us and makes us human.
I’m not one to write a slavish homage to any writer — at most I pick up on themes which resonate with me, or I might make reference to characteristic techniques or framing devices. I think anyone familiar with the James school of ghost writers will pick up on some of these echoes in Here with the Shadows. Ghosts manifest themselves in a variety of traditional ways: as mystical presences, as yearnings embodied, as invisible entities evident only in how they affect the things around them, as part of visual scenes displaced in time. There’s a story utilising the narrative distancing technique of a ghost story related in a letter read by an unrelated narrator. Another story uses the traditional device of a painting that changes as a haunting is revealed. And the final story, “Wheatfield with Crows”, owes much to Blackwoods’s “The Willows”.
LER: “Est Enim Magnum Chaos” was originally published in a collection of Arthur Machen-inspired fiction. Has Machen been a particular influence on your work, and if so, in what way?
SRT: I’ve read a great deal of Machen, but I would say that any influence is purely attitudinal. That idea of his that behind the mundane world hides something fundamentally more mysterious and strange has always moved me. He’s also another writer who made it clear to me that supernatural fiction wasn’t necessarily all about the frights—it could also be about delivering moments of spiritual awe.
LER: You are originally from Virginia. I was particularly struck by a sentence from “Smoke in a Bottle” because, having grown up in the South myself, I find this to be true for me: “When you live in a place as poor as that people think you must hate it and you can’t wait to leave.” In the story, this idea is contradicted by the protagonist; I wondered whether that passage was true for you as well, and in what ways growing up in the Appalachians may have informed your fiction?
SRT: On both my mother’s side and my father’s side I come from poor Appalachian dirt farmers (probably Melungeons on my father’s side but it’s never been completely confirmed), who I think felt lucky to stay out of the mines. My father was a game warden and when I entered high school my mother went to work in the county clerk’s office so we could have a little more money. We were poor, but we knew we were better off than many others (this was in one of the poorest counties in southwest Virginia — at one time as poor as any county in Mississippi) so I can’t say I ever felt deprived, or that I ever even noticed I wasn’t wearing the best clothes. We only knew of a handful of people who might be considered “well off”. And my dad bought the first colour TV in the county, which was a point of pride for him. He built a massive TV antenna on the roof which fell over at least once. So I watched more TV than most. We had very few books, and didn’t get a public library in the county until I was in high school—consequently I developed an inordinate hunger for books — they were exotic objects to me.
Although I was a shy kid, I was a naturally happy kid, even though things at home were pretty difficult sometimes with my dad’s alcoholism. Because of the alcoholism I never had friends over, and almost never saw other kids during the summer, even on those rare occasions I had the opportunity. I watched TV, I read whatever I could, I made up games and stories and I drew pictures. That was my life. Living in the county itself was a rather isolated existence. I knew very few people who ever ventured out of that small community. All we really knew about the outside world was what we saw on TV, and frankly, it was like watching newsreels from Mars. I think most of us felt very little connection with that world.
It was also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I was surrounded by fields and trees and low mountain ridges. All kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Houses and lawns were surprisingly well kept, and even the abandoned shacks on the hills had an antique charm. And with that porous limestone underneath everything we probably had more caves than people, and quite a sense of mystery about it all — the signs of early Indian habitation were everywhere, and the cave system under the town was largely unexplored, but once a giant rat showed up in our basement and we were pretty sure it had come out of that cave system . . .
And for all my dad’s problems he was quite a storyteller. They all were, really. And believe me I listened.
I couldn’t live there now because there’s no bookstore, movie house, or even a hospital (but they finally got 911 a couple of years ago, so at least now there are street names). But I can certainly understand when old friends retire back there.
LER: For me, “Telling” is to be the story in this collection that plants itself most squarely in the horror genre. I found it genuinely scary and disturbing — upsetting even — something that doesn’t really happen to me often when I read horror fiction. In contrast, something like “Seeing the Woods” reads like a work of mainstream literary fiction. My guess is that you don’t set out to write a work that fits into x category, but what do you tend to begin with — an idea, a mood, a character, something else?
SRT: I’m obsessed with story, and I’m particularly fascinated with how little is required sometimes to start a story. I’ve started many a story, for example, after overhearing a stray line of dialogue. Sometimes it’s something I’ve overheard — often incorrectly — from the street outside. I imagine what kind of person would say such a thing, and why. I’ll just start writing, curious to see where it all goes. It’s a high risk strategy, because sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, but often it does. More frequently these days I’ll take something I’m really emotional about and attempt to explore all its aspects through fiction. For me it’s a kind of testimony, and I feel it’s something all serious writers should do at least now and then. And I’m always surprised when I hear writers say they stay away from topics which upset them.
Everything’s highly tentative, however, until I discover the characters, and I figure out who’s telling the story. Those will be the experts for that particular piece — they’re the ones who know where the story needs to go. I believe a writer ignores what the characters have to say at his or her peril.
As for genre, ideally I let the characters tell me that as well. Though sometimes I’m writing to order for a particular anthology or magazine, so there’s this nebulous sort of negotiation going on in which I’m trying not to let the story go in an unsellable direction — it doesn’t always work.
Those particular stories you mention are what I call “bridge” stories, and I think it’s good to have those in a collection. “Telling” fits in some ways with the approach of the other stories but an image or two point to a place a bit beyond the scope of the book — toward fiction which is more typically horrific. “Seeing the Woods” takes the conversation in the opposite direction — details accumulate which suggest a certain spirituality, and there’s a sense that at any moment there might be an actual, identifiable ghostly encounter, but the story never quite goes there. So those two stories tend to set the boundaries of what I’m playing with in this book.
LER: What else do you have coming out or are you working on that we can look forward to?
SRT: For the remainder of this year there’s my new novel Blood Kin, a southern Gothic about everything horrific and Appalachian, from Solaris in Feb/March. And later on there will be a standalone novella, In the Lovecraft Museum, from PS Publishing. Then next year there’s this giant horror collection Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors from Centipede. 225,000 words, around seventy stories, none of them having appeared in my other collections — broken into categories like Old Monsters, Faraway Lands, Psychomania, etc. It’s like an old fashioned storybook anthology but all the stories are by one author.
As for projects I’m writing now — I’m finally getting around to finishing up Ubo, my science fiction horror novel about the origins of human violence. Then there’s a YA novel, Summerdark. A previous YA novel, The Mask Shoppe of Doctor Blaack, is still making the rounds of publishers. I like it very much — it’s an elaborate fantasy about Halloween, but maybe the editors are finding it a bit old-fashioned in today’s climate — I don’t know. I’m also writing some realistic Appalachian stories — someday I’d like to do an all Appalachian collection including a blend of realistic and fantasy-based stories.
Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and currently living in Dublin, Ireland. Her debut collection of short fiction, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published in 2013 by Karoshi Books. Her short stories have appeared in such places as F&SF, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, Shadows and Tall Trees, Nightmare Magazine, Postscripts, Black Static and Supernatural Tales. She is a regular columnist for Black Static.
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