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AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HOWARD
Conducted by Mark Valentine, © May 2013
John Howard was born in London. His stories have been published in several anthologies and the books The Silver Voices, The Defeat of Grief, and Numbered as Sand or the Stars. With Mark Valentine he contributed to their joint collection Secret Europe, and collaborated with him on several stories in The Collected Connoisseur. Howard has also published articles on many aspects of fantastic fiction, especially the work of Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, and August Derleth. His collection Written by Daylight is currently available from the Swan River Press.
Mark Valentine: In many of your stories, there is a relationship between physical places, often obscure and remote, and mental landscapes. How do you see these outer and inner worlds connecting?
John Howard: I’m not at all sure I know how they connect, only that they do connect. I was brought up in the Chilterns and early on came to value the landscapes I found and wandered around in. In my free time, whether at home or somewhere else, I am usually content just to wander around, keeping my eyes open and seeing where my feet lead me to. Perhaps physical landscapes—whether real or approximations of real ones described at a “slant”—help to anchor the mental landscapes and generate in each story a sense of place (and time) that gives authenticity. I like both inner and outer worlds to be thoroughly lived-in.
MV: This approach is particularly significant in “Time and the City”, where imagination seems to be actually creating a city. Do you see some strong affinities between architecture and literature?
JH: I’m sure there can be. For example it’s possible to talk of “constructing” a story, or “building” a world, and so on. Stories can be flung up overnight or take a long time to assemble, and painfully. And in some stories it is possible to remove something, bringing it crashing down, while others never get off the ground because the foundations are inadequate or haven’t been provided.
There are plenty of buildings and architectural references and themes in my stories (and one or two even have architects as characters). I am very interested in architecture—especially Art Deco and the “International Style”—and, like most writers, sometimes include my interests in my fiction.
MV: It seems to me that your stories often have a delicate balance between light and shade, both as description and as metaphor. Is one of your interests in depicting how your characters work through such inevitable changes?
JH: Another memory from childhood and adolescence is noticing how the shadow moved across the brick wall of the house at the end of the terrace opposite, and how it was different at different times of the year. I find the interplay and movement of sunlight and shadow to be sensuous and endlessly fascinating—as well as being ultimately depressing, because it is a visible manifestation of the passage of time and the fact that nothing lasts. In the long run nothing can be done (or written) against the fall of night.
I think that’s true with many of my characters, even though I don’t give it much if any thought while actually writing. Some of my main characters are rather nasty people, but I also hope I give an idea of why that is: why they have their personal mixtures of light and shadow. Life-changing and traumatic events could well cast their shadows. For me a wholly bad character (while almost certainly more glamorous) would be as pointless as a wholly good one. It’s the ambiguity, the interplay and contrasts of light and shadow, that make someone interesting and vulnerable. Both metaphorically and in physical description and appearance shadows help to make the flat into the three-dimensional.
MV: There’s another contrast, in “The High Places”, where the artist Averill puts his work at the service of preserving ancient churches. Yet there’s also a keen respect for modernist buildings in your fiction. Is exploring the tension between “ancient and modern” also one of your concerns?
JH: I think this tension certainly is one of my main concerns, although again I don’t consciously think about it when writing. I think there can be too much reverence for what is old, and not enough for what is more recent—which isn’t of course necessarily to approve the opposite stance. In architecture I like and revere what I consider to be (for example) such things as beautiful, practical, and honest—which could be ancient, modern, or from any period in between! I also respect magnificent failures—so long as there was vision and good intentions. In Birmingham the great 1970s Central Library building is due for demolition—and sometimes this vandalism seems to be excused because of the fine Victorian building it replaced. Well, we do things differently now, and that wouldn’t happen. But there are far more fine Victorian buildings still surviving in Birmingham than fine modernist (or “brutalist”) ones surviving.
MV: And as with the environment, so with society? In the lost garden of “Wandering Paths”, “It dawned on him that there were many pedestals without statues, and yet they stood sentinel at the intersections of paths . . . ” Some of your stories are about times and places where the old order has gone but its relics persist, and there are difficult choices ahead. Do such cusps in history draw your interest too?
JH: Very much so. Those periods show humanity and its best and worst, and can give rise to great creativity. I find it takes a great effort to imagine what someone must feel whose country and all its institutions and even place names have vanished. It’s also endlessly fascinating, particularly as it is someone else who has experienced it—been through the uncertainty and suffering. And yet it’s still happening, as after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rending-apart of Yugoslavia by its own people (and led by some of its own rulers). I certainly don’t want to sound like someone who believes things are only getting worse, and they were better in the past. I don’t believe that. But over the passage of time, whether catastrophic events intervene or not, some good things are inevitably lost, and missed. Even little and apparently insignificant things. Fiction can be a way of remembering while also still speculating.
MV: “A Gift for the Emperor” perhaps presages the passing of a great house, and a wider tragedy too, waiting in the wings. Yet it is mostly about duty, reticence and loyalty, even to what may prove unworthy. Those might be thought “old-fashioned” qualities. Are they, in your stories, amongst the lost good things: and are you inviting readers to reconsider them?
JH: Yes, I think they are qualities often seen as old-fashioned, and often no longer practised (although whether loyalty to the “unworthy” is a quality worth preserving is an open question). I don’t think I was consciously inviting readers to reconsider them, but if anyone does so that’s fine by me! I intend to return to the great house of Ziellenstein (with Thorsten and the von Stern family) at some point or points in the future.
MV: And as to “insignificant things”, you seem to make particular use in your stories of the tokens of civilisation—the everyday objects we take for granted, such as stamps, coins, letters—and they often come to seem like talismans. In the story “Into an Empire”, especially, they are imbued with intense meaning, “like offerings to an unknown divinity”. What do they symbolise for you—a strange beauty, lost order, forgotten time?
JH: As time passes I realise that I’ve taken (and still take) too much for granted. Stamps and coins, for example, are so commonplace that when I remember the changes in them, even in my lifetime, I think of all the changes that symbolises, and so they do achieve a sort of “talismanic” status. Coins especially have “seen” people and places and might be said to somehow take into themselves their varied journeys and transactions. I think these ideas are irresistible and ideal material for stories. We are surrounded by tokens of people and events outside ourselves—everything and everybody that isn’t me—they come from somewhere, and if we let them go again, they pass to somewhere else, neither of which can be known with certainty. I’ve come to like to consider (and sometimes keep, or buy and keep) a selection of these talismans. Each time I can’t help thinking that I might not get the chance again, and if I can keep any for myself, something of them might “rub off” on me (literally with coins) and let me into their worlds, pass something on to me, even if only for a moment.
MV: Yes, there’s often a sense of loss in your stories, and not just of objects. Quite a few of your characters—for example, both the younger and older figures in “ ‘Where Once I Did My Love Beguile’ ”—are really on a quest for something else. What are your characters seeking?
JH: I have no idea. When one of them finds out and tells me, I’ll let you know! My characters tend to do what they like, regardless of what I think. Seriously, and if I can speak for them, maybe it’s the journey (quest, experience of living or enduring life, and so on) that’s important, rather than any fulfilment or destination.
MV: In some of your stories, the main characters face different sorts of exile: in “Silver on Green”, the statesman Eduard Miklos has been banished from the country he once led; in “Winter’s Traces”, the composer William Winter is in exile from his music. Do you see forms of exile as inevitable to us all?
JH: I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “exile”, but no, I don’t see it as inevitable. However—and I can of course only speak for myself—I have always felt something of an outsider, if not an exile. The exile would be from the time of childhood and youth before the responsibilities of adulthood, work, relationships, etc. took over. My childhood and youth were not idyllic, but they weren’t bad either—except for the one truly terrible event of my mother dying when I was fifteen. Perhaps that is the main reason for the themes of exile and loss in my work. And yet, on the other side, I wouldn’t have known my stepmother and stepbrother and stepsister if things had been different, more “normal”. But from my teens I knew that what seems to be stable and permanent can be overthrown in a moment. Possession of someone and being possessed by them, or possessing something, is short-lived, while loss so often seems to be the default position.
I have also always felt something of an exile in space: not having lived for thirty years in the places where I was born or brought up. But again, I like where I live now and “you can’t go home again”. Oops, I’ve talked more about myself rather than answering your question . . .
MV: I haven’t so far asked about the supernatural or fantastic in your fiction: that’s because these are so subtly interwoven with the wider themes we’ve been exploring. But they are definitely still there. Is a sense of the strange or unearthly important to your writing?
JH: Certainly. I don’t believe in the “supernatural” but the world is such a strange place that it would take an effort to write about something impinging on the world from outside, if I were to use that sort of language in describing and defining the supernatural. I’m much happier thinking about the “strange” and “unearthly” in terms of the “other”. (All of this probably allows for a more “orthodox” supernatural too.) The other is what isn’t me, and so everything is wide open. I also like the “numinous”—something which you are very good at invoking in your fiction—Rudolf Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. Writers like Machen and Blackwood also invoke it in their best work. A touch of that is enough for me!
Mark Valentine is the author of several volumes of short stories including The Collected Connoisseur (Tartarus 2010) and Secret Europe (Ex Occidente Press 2012), both titles co-written with John Howard. He has also written a biography of Arthur Machen (Seren 1990); and Time, a Falconer (Tartarus Press 2011), a study of the diplomat and fantasist "Sarban". His Selected Stories was published by the Swan River Press in 2012. He currently edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.