This post is by Acep Hale.
My Dear Unknown Friend,
In 2015 Dunhams Manor Press continued their winning streak of bringing relatively unknown writers to critical acclaim with the release of Christopher Slatsky’s Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. This baker’s dozen of elegant short stories soon drew vocal admirers from far afield and by year’s end Mr. Slatsky’s volume unsurprisingly topped several “Best of” lists. We here at Lovecraft eZine were very pleased when Mr. Slatsky graciously agreed to set aside the time for an interview.
In your interview with Muzzleland Press (great interview btw) you said, “I’d never considered the self-publishing route, instead focusing on publishers with a strong track record in releasing novellas and short stories.” Was this for logistical reasons, the stigma still attached to writers who self-publish their works, or yet other reasons?
The stigma attached to self-publishing was definitely a factor, but so was my lack of practical knowledge when it comes to self-promoting. I think my submitting via the traditional route helped me hone a few of my stories on various editor’s whetstones. So things worked out for the best in my case.
Alectryomancer bears out the wisdom of that decision. The book’s design is as striking as the writing within. I felt silly when I turned to see who was responsible for the design work and realized that it was Jordan Krall himself. I was also surprised the first time when I read your collection and saw that the majority of the stories were either original to the collection or had been published by DMP as standalone chapbooks. Roughly what length of time are we looking at here as far as the writing in the book?
Jordan Krall did a fantastic job on that image! It’s a subtle variation of his Alectryomancer chapbook cover.
I wasn’t even thinking of a collection when Jordan contacted me with the idea, so things moved pretty fast from proposal to publication. There wasn’t a lot of time to reach out to various cover artists or to collect blurbs and whatnot—but the publisher did get a Justin Steele quote from his Arkham Digest review of the chapbook for This Fragmented Body. Between that and the striking cover, I consider myself extremely fortunate.
The oldest story in the collection is “Corporautolysis”, written and published in December 2011, the year I took the plunge into actually trying my hand at submitting to various markets. The collection’s contents were written from 2011 to 2015, though most of the previously unpublished material is from 2014 and 2015.
I’m that much more impressed with Alectryomancer hearing that the stories were written that closely together. What made the collection work for me was that not only were the stories so well written but also varied in subject matter and theme. Your debut collection felt like the work of a writer who has been publishing for a longer stretch of time for this very reason. Is there a varied history of jobs to match this range of subject matter, a variety of intellectual interests, rampant curiosity?
I’m so glad to hear that Alectryomancer worked for you! Adam Golaski’s Worse Than Myself showed me how a collection could offer a diverse range, from experimental surreal pieces, to something as commonplace as a vampire story, but delivered through Golaski’s unique perspective. I wanted something similar in that I attempted to make each story memorable on their individual terms, so the whole book didn’t collapse into an amorphous mush. That was my aim anyway.
I’ve worked a few jobs over the years, from a brief stint in the studios to far too many years at bookstores, but my current career is more inducive to Ligottian corporate horror than anything else. I’d attribute most of my influences and interests to far too many interests, and being a bit of a dilettante. My majors in college were philosophy and anthropology, and I remain passionate about both despite my not pursuing an academic career. The two subjects cast a net wide enough to encompass my interests in science, literature, archaeology, art, politics, religion, and more. If my earliest memories are to be trusted, I always wanted to be a comic book artist/writer, a filmmaker, or a science writer— though the emphasis changed day to day. But storytelling was always there.
Then you are a great example of Flaubert’s quote, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.” One of the things I have always loved about horror/cosmic horror/weird fiction is how delightfully subversive it is. Some bemoan the horror boom of the 80’s and 90’s yet I remember those books carrying coded messages in a pre-internet age. Skipp & Spector’s The Light at the End will always hold a special place in my heart because that novel was traded Samizdat fashion amongst the few freaks and weirdos clinging desperately to life and limb in a remote rural high school. Your work carries that same task easily. Now we have an overwhelming amount of information, yet the title of your first story provides not only a clue to unraveling the story but further explorations if the reader feels so inclined. Similarly, in the first paragraph you mention the Faces of Bélmez. You have said you consciously layer your stories. With “Loveliness Like A Shadow” how did that tale evolve? What was the seed of the story?
Oh yes, the 80s and 90s horror boom. I grew up in a small town in Oregon, so hunting down and reading obscure chapbooks like Deathrealm or Grue felt rebellious. Thinking back on the 80s horror boom, I’ll always love those garish Ramsey Campbell covers, and shortly after, discovering Poppy Z. Brite, Kathe Koja, Blumlein, Melanie Tem, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson through the Abyss line. Splatterpunk aside, there was something very punk rock and daring in those days. It was particularly exciting to see more women authors, and interesting gay and lesbian characters.
Yes! Thank you for catching the title’s relevance. I feel that ties are an integral part of the story, so I try to put some thought in naming them. Referencing Federico García Lorca, or the McMartin school and the 16th century dancing plague is meant to accentuate what follows if the reader wants to pursue it, but not necessary at all. Hopefully the tale stands on its own.
“Loveliness Like a Shadow” was inspired by Franz von Stuck’s painting, and the enigmatic power of Medusa in weird fiction (Ligotti’s story immediately comes to mind of course). Our living in London for a spell had some bearing on the matter as well. It’s my take on Shelley’s idea that gorgons represent “the tempestuous loveliness of terror.” I tried to capture the conflict of being both elated and terrified at the prospect of a new life, of terminating a long term relationship to pursue a new existence, running away to a foreign land, changing your very identity. Eleanor doesn’t want to be defined by her husband, yet she also misses what she once had. The Bélmez Faces and Eleanor’s definition of who she is are malleable, identities that come and go like phantoms.
Perfect example of how we could spiral out of control so easily, which I find pleasing given our mutual love for Jessica Amanda Salmonson. It has been personally gratifying to see how many people acknowledge Abyss over the years. In his introduction to The Conspiracy Against the Human Race Ligotti writes of a familiar storyline in supernatural fiction wherein the narrator encounters a living paradox. Ligotti uses the example of “the living dead”. Yet here we have something nearly as sinister, “women writing horror”, and with the case of “The Cipher” and “Anthony Shriek” these writers chose to take the darker aspects of relationships and place them front and center within their work. “On The Medusa of Leonardo DaVinci” is used within the text, “Soft-Shed Kisses: Re-visioning the Femme Fatale in English Poetry of the 19th Century,” Vashti, the name of the sculptor that Eleanor admires, in the Midrash is described as a wicked and vain creature yet in feminist reinterpretations is lauded as a free thinker and independent woman. How important is it for you to include these voices of subversion within your own work?
Subversive voices are very important to me. Subversive thinkers, Outsider artists, the fringe, beyond John Lacan and Pierre Moulin, are profound influences. As for the feminist aspect, I find most of my characters are Latinas by default— I’ve never analyzed why this is beyond my wife’s importance to me, my friends, co-workers, and people I know in general. I’m not necessarily a fan of “write what and who you know”, but we live in California, and the state hasn’t had a white plurality in years. I’m not making some profound observation when I note that there’s no dearth in white guy representation when it comes to speculative fiction. Beyond the clear racism involved, seeking out, celebrating, and emphasizing POC voices in literature means better literature.
You got it! Various midrashic interpretations of Vashti’s role plays an important part in “Loveliness Like a Shadow”: the pretentious art exhibit mirrors Vashti’s banquet, the feast where women were able to freely interact with other women, so the strange little man that Eleanor has a discussion with over the Shroud of Turin art marks him as this incongruous presence. Various traditions portray Vashti as an adulteress, others as a powerful ruler; other midrashic wisdom have Memucan suggesting beheading Vashti. I find these dual aspects between Vashti and Medusa compelling.
And on the less pretentious, though equally important note, I adore Vashti Bunyan.
Knowing how carefully you chose elements within your stories I doubt it is an accident you chose to the name Levi for the protagonist in “The Ocean is Eating Our Graves”. It’s sad that the theft of cultural artifacts is still a timely issue, especially given the militia at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge holding artifacts and documents belonging to the Paiute tribe hostage. I know from your previous answers that you have a deep interest in archaeology and anthropology. Was the interest in the Coos tribe and its mythology developed by your childhood in Oregon or is that too simplistic of a reading?
I’d say “all of the above” as far as influences for “The Ocean is Eating Our Graves”. There were a few ignition points: the story allowed me to return to my love of anthropology, tapping into what I learned growing up in Oregon, hanging out with Indian friends, Siletz specifically (I remember some friends and acquaintances emphasizing either Indian or Native Americans the preferred term, essentially establishing Native ownership of either one, and removing white monopoly over terminology. I love that stance). The Kennewick Man find in ’96 was influential as well. The remains became this physical embodiment of the continued oppression of Native interests, of white supremacy, pseudoscience, racism in the sciences, and the persistent dismissal of Native people’s interests over their own land, history, and cultures in general.
The recent news of the desecration of Paiute artifacts (not to mention the historical land theft as well) is just the latest example with lots of media coverage. Just last summer in Northern California, there was some coverage of the widespread looting after wildfires and the ongoing drought lowered Clear Lake which revealed a wealth of Pomo artifacts ripe for theft. Same as it ever was. I tried to tell a story incorporating such tragedies beneath a pulpy horror tale, without trivializing the seriousness of the issues involving flesh and blood people.
Another facet I enjoy about your writing is you keep your stories of cosmic horror firmly grounded within the personal realm, or as you succinctly put it in your interview with The Plutonian, “The intent is to tell stories with a cosmic tint, while also describing the emotional turmoil and struggles on a temporal level.” In his excellent breakdown on the Abyss publishing imprint, Steffen Hantke adroitly covers Kathe Koja’s use of the triangle as “the crucial compositional principle” within her fiction. Within “Loveliness Like A Shadow” you give us Eleanor, Joel, and Vashti, while Levi, Mariee, and Dr. Garcia await us in “The Ocean Is Eating Our Graves”. Triangles abound within Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales. Was this a strategy you discovered through your own writing or through reading?
Most of my stories start out in a world already slightly askew, then the strange elements intrude with increasing frequency until the universe the characters inhabit becomes a very different universe. I am in awe, and somewhat intimidated, on contemplating the age of the universe — and while the mechanistic processes that make me the equivalent of an electrochemical automaton do raise serious concerns, neither fills me with an existential dread anywhere near that when contemplating my family’s grief after I die. I am more curious about how reality works, how it appears to us, how it’s interpreted through our limited goggles, than frightened. My fear, my horror, is mainly derived from sorrow. I don’t necessarily have a set in stone method, but I do think most of my storytelling is my attempt to explain how sadness can become so profound, it becomes something beautiful, weird, supernatural, perhaps even transcendent.
Good eye! There’s definitely a triangle pattern present, some intentional, other times I’d say it’s similar to the appearance of design in nature: the inherent elements of my short stories more often than not leans towards a certain structure, that is, three characters, with an exposition, climax, and resolution. I could go full-on pretentious and ramble about the triune brain and trinitarian concepts in various faiths, but I think the triangle is something I must have picked up in my reading and stored away in the subconscious.
While reading “The Ocean Is Eating Our Graves” and your descriptions of the Blood Mound I immediately flashed upon Robert Smithson. Before we go on I’m not suggesting a straight across one to one reductionist correspondence. Yet in Smithson’s work and writing, the outsider agitator voice, the apocalyptic voice, the obsession with syzygy, his study of the serpent mound, I find parallels to the story at hand. With your already professed love for outsider historians such as Pierre Moulin I was wondering if you could expound upon the place of contemporary art within your fiction.
Contemporary art has its claws deeply embedded in my head. I’m profoundly influenced by outsider art that discomfits, Noah Purifoy’s Mojave desert sculptures, Richard Long’s landscape art; painters, illustrators and sculptors like Max Klinger’s hauntingly beautiful visions, intricate traditional Kwakwaka’wakw masks, Odilon Redon’s dread filled images, James Ensor’s grotesqueries, and plenty of comic book illustrators and inkers. Artists that celebrate the terrifying and the beautiful fascinate me.
The appearance of design in nature is a common theme I find myself exploring again and again, and I’m drawn to artists who express this interest. I have an unpublished story titled “No One May See Me and Live”, which specifically references Carl Cheng’s sand sculptures as examples of how the natural world is deceptive in its ability to convince us of intent.
Christopher, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us. I know you’ve gained a lot of new admirers with the release of Alectrtyomancer And Other Weird Tales. What can we look forward to in 2016?
Thank you for allowing me to ramble! In 2016 I have a story that will appear in the anthology LOST SIGNALS. I believe that’ll be May. And my story “Devil Gonna Get You in the Corners” will pop up in STRANGE AEONS sometime this year. I also have something in CM Muller’s NIGHTSCRIPT vol. 2 coming this October. There are a handful of other stories and projects still in Schrödinger’s limbo, so I’ll have to wait to open that box.
Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales by Christopher Slatsky is available in print and for Kindle.