Stephen Graham Jones, author of Demon Theory, Mongrels, and countless more joined us for the latest episode of Spooklights. Bigfoot and the greys come up, and I manage to say “haunted media” again because I’m apparently contractually obligated to bring it up every episode.
One of the advantages of taking the bus when your commute is 45 minutes to an hour? Well, besides stealing all sorts of interesting characterization from your fellow bus-riders, you can read. A lot.
Pathfinder RPG: Horror Adventures
I’ve been getting back into tabletop roleplaying, specifically the Pathfinder RPG, with a group of coworkers. I picked this 2016 release up last month (before I started riding the bus, admittedly), and I don’t regret it. It’s a great supplement to the game (think Dungeons & Dragons) that takes Pathfinder one step closer to Call of Cthulhu territory. I also recommend this as an inspiration tome for horror writers. Every page has awesome horror ideas and hooks. Check out our most recent episode of Spooklights for the full take: Spooklights #13: The Book of Blasphemous Words
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of a bunch of highly-acclaimed books, including Demon Theory, This is Horror Awards-Winner After the People Lights Have Gone Off, All the Beautiful Sinners, and more than can be listed in a brief introduction. His short stories are appearing and have appeared in a top-shelf horror and weird fiction collection near you. He’s even shown up as a character in a Laird Barron story. I discovered him late to the game, back when I read his absolutely disturbing and terrifying short story “The Darkest Part” in Nightmare Carnival. It was my honor to ask him a few questions about his new novel, Mongrels.
What sets Mongrels apart from the rest of the werewolf novel pack?
There’s no vampires, for one. Nothing against vampires, of course—they’re pretty deadly, and have some killer fashion sense—but werewolves are plenty enough for Mongrels. More than enough, really. Maybe what sets this novel apart is that I’ve had it in my head since I was twelve years old? Seriously, werewolves, they’ve always been where it’s at for me. I remember being twelve, living way out in the country, and creeping up from my bed after lights out and pressing my forehead to the cold glass, so I could watch the darkness for werewolves. I had no doubt at all that they were running in these fast clockwise circles around our house. And that if I quit watching even for a blink, then they were coming in for us. So I’ve been thinking on the werewolf for a long time, now. I’ve been watching for them. What always interested me most about them, though, after the teeth and claws and transformations, it was the day to day difficulties of being a different, maligned species. How to explain why your pants keep being ripped up? Why does your friend’s dog run yelping away when you walk up? I spent a lot of my twelfth year trying to become a werewolf—maybe because I knew I could never beat them, so I might as well get out there and run with them. But nothing ever took. So, Mongrels, it’s as close as I can get, I suppose. Gerald Vizenor says that being Indian, it’s an act of the imagination. I’ve always really believed that. And I think it goes for werewolves too.
Werewolf and wolf-spirit mythology and superstition has a strong history in North America, as it was imported by European cultures and was already present in several Native American traditions. There is also a well-established cinematic tradition of the werewolf. What were your influences for the shapeshifters of Mongrels? How did you make the lycanthrope your own?
In the The Wolf Man, the 1941 one, that scene where Bela-wolf attacks Talbot’s ‘chaperone’ behind that tree? If you frame-by-frame it, you can see the shadowy shape of a person back there. But if you watch it at normal speed like a normal person, then all you see is the wolf. Bela, he shifts into a wolf-wolf, a four-footed wolf, right? But then Talbot, after he gets bit, he becomes this hybrid monster, this man-wolf. That never made sense to me. So, with the biology and life-cycle of Mongrels‘ werewolves, I tried to explain it. But, surprise, I actually didn’t see The Wolf Man in 1941. Where the werewolf infects me, it’s The Howling. I watched that so many times on VHS in the early eighties. Just over and over and over, until it imprinted on me. And of course I tracked the novel down after that, and all the other novels before and since, and all the films too, and short films. Everything I could find. When you’re ravenous, you can never get enough. It’s kind of part of the definition. Or all of the definition. However, what triggered Mongrels even more than The Howling? It’s that old vampire movie Near Dark. If vampires were real, that’s how they would live, I figure. No velvet capes with high collars, no Lougle stock. Just living in ratty stolen cars, going from place to place every week, because the blood’s starting to pool around your boots.
The book is “set in the deep South.” Is this the deep South of your home state of Texas, or elsewhere?
I’m definitely from West Texas, so the beating heart under all my landscapes, all my imaginary geographies, it’s always those pastures and cottonfields I still call home. But I lived in the Florida panhandle, too, and in Arkansas, and I’ve crisscrossed those swampy highways so many times I feel like they’re part of me as well. The opening credits of True Blood? Those make the list of all-time great opening credits of all shows, for me. Along with The Rockford Files. But, that True Blood imagery, and that digging-deep Jace Everett song, that’s kind of overwritten my South a bit. Or lined up with it, anyway. Well, that and the South in Mark Richard’s The Ice at the Bottom of the World. And Harry Crews’ stuff. And maybe Breece D J’Pancake, if that’s even you spell his name [Close enough. – ed.]. This isn’t Faulkner and Flannery’s South, though. Not for me, not for Mongrels. This is more Daniel Woodrell, or Donald Ray Pollock, or William Gay, or Joe R. Lansdale. Just—it’s hard to get at the exact … Okay. This: I remember going over to an uncle’s house once, to borrow a tool or something. And in his living room, he didn’t have one huge old console television, he had two, one stacked on the other, almost to the ceiling of his trailer. The bottom one had the tube blown, but the speakers still worked. The top one had picture, but no sound. So, together, yeah, you’ve got something you can watch Wheel of Fortune on, right? To me, that’s the South. Or, it’s West Texas, anyway. Also, I guess I should say, my whole time growing up, and still, I always considered the best gauge of success and happiness to be how many old trucks you had planted all around your place. The old guys in my family, man, I’m so jealous. They’ve got junkyards around their places. It’s wonderful—it’s like when Bilbo pops his head up through the canopy of the Black Forest of Mirkwood, and sees all those butterflies. Except, for me, those butterflies are old trucks. My mom’s dad, who I never knew? When he died young, he already had enough old trucks that they just pushed them into a pit, buried them. It breaks my heart, but it thrills me to the core, too. I lived in a junkyard for a while in high school. Every morning I woke up, it was like I’d already made it, like I’d already lived a whole, great life. We never had food back then, me and my friends, always had to poach dove out past the city limits, but man if I couldn’t walk out the front door of that old trailer, sit in the crumbly seats of any car we wanted, and dream.
Culture can often paint an ugly and simplistic picture of poor, rural life. How do you approach that setting and associated themes?
Just from the inside, I guess. But yeah, just today even, I was reading a story that got some notoriety, I think, and was supposed to be about someone down on their luck, messed up with meth, but it felt like the writer was spoonfeeding an entitled audience the representation of these ‘trailer people’ that they would find the most thrilling. And that makes me so sick. Really? It makes me write more, and harder, and with my teeth gritted, my pen gouging too deep. That’s how to erase a culture, isn’t it? You overwrite it. You provide something more palatable, easier to put on a shelf. Or, talking Indians, in a display case, as ‘under glass’ is where America wants us. It’s one of the more extreme violences that can be enacted, as it makes people invisible on the street. And that’s something up with which I will not put, as Churchill might have said. Or was that Robert Stack in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America?
Does your current academic work at CU Boulder tie in with this novel? How does your research intersect with your fiction?
Ties all the way into Mongrels, yeah. Back in 2008 or so, I last-minute got asked to teach an open-topic Genre course. Like, the week before the semester. So I said sure—if I could teach zombies. Which I did for two or three or four years. Loved it. But then I wanted something different, so I proposed my heart’s true love, the werewolf. And it got approved, and I got some funds to buy up werewolf books and movies. So, cue the avalanche of texts here. It hit early in December of 2013, and I read about a werewolf book every two days, I imagine, and was watching movies deep into every night. My deadline was December 31st, too, so I shut down the course prep then. But my mind, it wouldn’t stop spinning with all this. So, on January 1st, my fingers twitching like they were going to pop claws, I sat down at the keyboard, started Mongrels, and had a solid draft of it down by the time the semester started. Which is the same way I wrote my first novel, The Fast Red Road. I’d just prepped for my PhD comps , covering a hundred and ten novels and collections and critical books in three months, and at the end of that, like an abreaction or something, I had no real choice but to find a keyboard stat, man, and get going, lest this swirling in my head turn into a whirlpool, suck me down with it. It’s one model for how to write a novel, I guess: pack your mind way too full, then feel around, find the drain. For me that drain is always the first line. And with Mongrels, I just got lucky. It all fell into place like I had it outlined. And it’s another one of my books that’s like eighty percent autobiography, I suppose. People always ask how I make stuff up. I don’t ever really feel like I do. I just remember it in my own way. With claws, and teeth.
As a fellow Colorado transplant, do you find the state’s cultural and geographical influence creeping into your writing?
Not so far, no. For me it’s always Texas, or the South, or the reservation. But I didn’t grow up on the rez, so I don’t completely trust myself to make it properly real. I can do Texas, though. Texas doesn’t even take trying. Cut my fingertips, they bleed Texas onto the keyboard.
Some of your work—most notably Demon Theory—can be experimental in form and style, but you’ve also been published in more conventional formats. How do you decide how to approach a particular work in terms of style and form, whether a short story, novel, or something else?
For me, innovation, all it is in fiction is the writer being at point C in a story, say, and looking up ahead, seeing L on the horizon, and L’s pretty shiny and great, but processing the reader through D and E and F and G and H and I and J and K is going to slog the story down, kill the read. So what that writer does is build some unlikely contraption, to cheat their way ahead to L. I guess I could have explained this with Chutes and Ladders too, couldn’t I have? That might be better, even, as there’s a lot of chutes, with writing a novel. A lot of Go Back to Go, Don’t Collect Nothing, Loser. But, those contraptions that leapfrog you ahead, they’re situational, they’re created on-the-spot. They should never be you sitting at your writing table and mixing elements at random, seeing what fizzes, what smokes, then finding something fun, pouring that unlikely mixture into your current project. At least that’s now how it works for me. With Demon Theory, I realized right off that this was a movie-infused novel, so it made a kind of sense to use screenplay tricks to tell it. It was a form of streamlining. Hopefully, it was some narrative economy, which I really needed in a novel tending towards the seriously excessive. With Mongrels, though, the innovation would be those intercut pieces, I suppose, and the standalone-ness of the chapters. The same way as with Demon Theory, how using screenplay format for a movie novel felt right, with Mongrels, a novel about hybrids, using a hybrid form felt kind of fitting. I wasn’t even sure I was writing a novel while I was writing it, I mean. I just knew I was writing werewolves. And that was more than enough. I completely felt like I was getting away with something. That’s what writing’s all about.
What kind of continuing influence does horror cinema have on your writing?
Big influence, definitely. I watch all the horror I can. There’s both models to aspire to on the DVD shelf, and there’s cautionary tales. But even in the cautionary tales, there’s usually something to glean, something to learn. A scene that’s off to the side of the story that’s this perfect little dramatic space—that I, Hamburgler that I am, can scurry off with, use to my own evil purposes. Where I learn the most, I suppose, it’s in the low-budget, VOD game. Because there, they have no choice but to innovate, necessity being the kind of mother it is.
In the horror and weird literature community, yours is one of the big names in the field. How do you measure success as a writer thus far, especially one who sought to “snag whatever craft tricks I could, smuggle them out to horror and scifi and fantasy and westerns”?
Few different ways, I suppose. The first time I ever felt ‘real’ as a writer? I was twenty years old, getting a check. Nothing gives you that legit feeling like money crossing your palm. Every time since, getting paid, that feels pretty right. But, as for closing the circle … I know. Two, three years after Bleed Into Me came out, someone edged up to me after a reading somewhere in America, and he said that he’d read the title story of that collection he didn’t know how many times now. That it was helping him get over his brother, who’d died not long back. That’s got to be what it’s about, yeah? We’re finally not really on this planet to buy fancy shoes or carve our faces into mountains. We’re here for each other. And not just in that way, either. What always feel the best since then, it’s the people who get hold of me one way or another, and say that they had to sleep with the lights on last night, because of something I wrote. I mean, the paranoid writer part of my brain instantly cues up the possibility that the story was probably a grammar or syntax nightmare, one the reader couldn’t wake from, finally. But I have a small, leftover part of brain, too, that really likes that, scaring people. It’s why I dig horror, really. Horror can force the reader into a visceral reaction they don’t invite, and wouldn’t accept, probably. All the other modes of fiction, the reader has to fake her way in, has to agree with the writer to enter this imaginary space, and thus become vulnerable to all the machinations within. Horror, though, it can ambush you—and not always while you’re reading. You’ve got your defenses up then. You can catch a stray comma, and remind yourself that this is clunky, that it’s all made up. But wait until you’re standing there at the light switch at two in the morning. Or, in Mongrels‘ case, wait until you pull up to the fifth of eight pump islands at a deserted gas station at four in the morning. Check out that lowslung, rusted-out old car over there. Was that a shape looking over the back seat? Is the door opening? It’s not, no. But it always is, too.
What are you reading now? What’s next on your to-read pile?
On the last couple stories of the TC Boyle-edited Best American Short Stories. Reading them with a workshop, but I’ve had my nose in that series since 1992 or so, I guess. For better and for worse. And I just finished a re-read of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, which has to be one of the five most brilliant novels published in these 2000s. Ever heard that David Allan Coe song, where Kris Kristofferson talks about Hank Jr. standing right next to Elvis at Memphis, and looking him straight in the eye? Altered Carbon, it stands right up there with Hyperion, with Neuromancer, with The Diamond Age. And it looks them all dead in the eye. As for what’s next, it’ll probably be either the first three volumes of Rick Remender’s Black Science or John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer. Benjamin Percy’s write-up of it for the NYT got me to buy it right up. I usually like Grisham’s stuff, too. Also about to cue up the old Secret Wars for the who-knows-how-manyeth time. It’s for a comic book course I’m teaching. But it’s also for my soul.
What’s your current writing project? What are you looking forward to writing next?
Just cut fifty thousand words from a novel. Got it down to a relatively svelte ninety-five thousand words. Agent’s looking it over again, but we’re close to getting it on editors’ desks. It’s a cop-novel, set in Midland, Texas—that’s where I lived in that junkyard. I think why I wrote it, it starts with a line from a David James Keaton story that I couldn’t stop thinking about. It was alive in a way prose usually doesn’t get to be. So I wondered what if I did that for, like, a novel? And then I tried. But I guess I also wrote it because I’m all the way up here in Colorado, but Texas is still in my head, and my heart. Don’t figure I’ll ever shake it. Been writing a lot of deadline stories lately, too. Just in November, I think I wrote six stories.
Did I see you wandering around at StarFest Denver last year, or was I on crazy pills? Do you make it out to local (and otherwise) conventions often?
I’ve been a HorrorFest guest at StarFest every year since 2008, I think. So, so dig that con. It’s what I consider my home con. I gauge everywhere I go by that con. When I’m at places where I don’t get to ride the elevator with Klingons, or when I sit down for a panel and nobody in the front row has blue skin or latex scars, then I get this stab of sadness, like. The chicken strips I eat in the atrium of StarFest are far and away the most sentimental chicken strips I’ve ever had. One StarFest, Dee Wallace was the big HorrorFest guest. And, good grief, holy something: Dee Wallace? I kind of thought I might just melt, reading her name in the program. She was in The Howling, I mean. She wolfed out on the nightly news, and then got put down with a silver bullet! I kept sliding by her signing booth, but couldn’t get the nerve to make the approach. So, I did what you do: I waited until she wasn’t there, and sneaked over, kind of liberated one of the headshots she’d been signing. If I couldn’t get her name on it, then stealing it would be at least give me a different set of complicated feelings for it, right? You take what you can get. Anyway, then I skulked up to the con suite, to snag another of these wonderful grilled sandwiches they’re always making, only, all around the table, there were these walls of muscle. Of security. Because Dee Wallace was there, in this place I always went just to kick back, drink Dr. Pepper. So I did it at last. I sat down at the table. At her table. And we got to talking, and it went great, it went just like you imagine it when you’re secretly imagining how perfect it’s going to be, that way you keep in your head because you know if you expose it to the light of the real world, everybody’ll laugh, and it’ll turn into a big revealing joke, and then you’ll have to burn it in effigy in your mind every night for the rest of your life. So of course I messed it up. I said, Um, hey, yeah, um, what if, um, yeah, um, know how you were signing earlier, remember that? Well, there’s um—this. “This” being the pilfered headshot. Which she took, then looked up to me with these newly severe eyes. “You stole this, didn’t you?” she said. Enter here a lot of no-eye-contact. Enter here a certain writer’s chair sinking by inches. Either that or he’s trying to slide under the table. I kind shrugged, tried out another “Um.” She laughed a bit (did I mention how perfect Dee Wallace is? how cool?), took the headshot across—it’s from early in that nightly news transformation—and signed it in silver-bullet sharpie. Well, silver, anyway. But I know she was really talking to me and only me about werewolves. What else could there be to talk about?
Recently I’ve been interested in reading short story collections rather than novels. I’ve become tired of failing to get invested in a long-form story’s characters or plot, and have become accustomed to recognizing when a novel’s length is padded for thickness’ sake.
I’ve also been interested in reading work by female authors—especially within the horror genre—because most of the books I pick up tend to be written by men.
Add to that a desire to read something fun and pulpy, and Nightmare Carnival edited by Ellen Datlow seemed like the perfect fit. An entire short story collection with a diverse authorship—helmed by one of the industry’s top editors—and it’s about scary clowns, freaks, carnivals, and circuses (yes, there is a difference between the latter two).
If what I’m describing sounds interesting to you, I’ll save you some time and say that you should pick up the anthology. The book isn’t without its uneven or weaker stories—find me a collection that is—but the good (and a couple of great) outweigh the bad and the boring.
That said, this is not a book for the hardcore horror fan. Many of the stories—probably half or more—aren’t strictly horror, but are instead dark literary fiction or fantasy. The lack of the supernatural—or its de-emphasis, or its use as a vehicle for vaguely weird experimental fiction—in many of these works left me a little disappointed. I wanted the book’s cover, complete with cut-off text and faded comic-style coloring—to deliver on its promise of fun and pulp. I wanted a carnival spookhouse ride of mayhem, cheap thrills, and bright colors. Certainly, some of these stories deliver on that promise, and in very interesting and disturbing ways. Others simply do not, relying more on experimental forms of suspense and plot that don’t seem to have any substantial connection to the circus motif, which is obviously ripe for exploration in the horror forms.
Maybe this is my issue, not the book’s—but a book called Nightmare Carnival with ghouls, a weird-looking kid, and a bleeding clown on the cover tends to imply horror, right? While none of the stories were poorly written—the authors in this collection are certainly true talents—a few of them were, well, kind of pedestrian. They felt like something you’d read in a mainstream literary magazine, with a few big-top tents and carnies thrown in for flavor.
But there are quite a few really solid pieces in the book.
“Scapegoats” by N. Lee Wood is a sordid tale of mob rule and outcasts’ revenge; “And the Carnival Leaves Town” by A. C. Wise is bizarre supernatural detective story where the evidence just doesn’t add up; “Corpse Rose” by Terry Dowling is part science fiction, part urban legend; “Hibbler’s Minions” by Jeffrey Ford is a darkly-funny tale of monstrous fleas; “Screaming Elk, MT” by Laird Barron feels like a pulp action-horror romp in the contemporary Robert E. Howard school.
The two stand out stories of the collection are “The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones and “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud, both for very different reasons. Jones’ work is the only truly terrifying work in the collection; he forgoes all humor and pretense and goes straight for the jugular, capitalizing on fears of child abuse and molestation, torture, and clowns. It’s a story I read right before bed—and immediately regretted it. It also served to illustrate how the fear of clowns and the circus that many people suffer is completely underutilized in this collection. His story creeped me out in all the wrong ways.
“Skullpocket” uses horror tropes in new and interesting ways, following a cult priest and supernatural creatures as they reflect on their bizarre hybrid-town’s violent and compelling history. Out of all the stories in this collection, Ballingrud’s had the most behind it, implying a fantastic world of wonder and ruin beyond the scope of its too-few pages.
Nightmare Carnival comes recommended for these stories. Those looking to face their fear of clowns and the big top head-on, or those expecting a straight horror anthology, may be disappointed (with a few notable exceptions).
Then again, your mileage may vary—and the stories that work, well—they justify the price of admission. It’s the popcorn you pay for, but the peanut smell is free.