Matthew M. Bartlett and I continue the interview to discuss Creeping Waves, his upcoming projects, and a bunch of movies that we disagree about to some extent!
Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with persons of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes.
Scott R. Jones is owner and project editor of Martian Migraine Press, a transgressive weird small press out of Canada. His latest anthology, Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is available now.
JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?
SRJ: If we’re going to go all the way back to the moment I became aware of horror, I would have to relate the moment in grade school when a classmate brought in the comics adaptation of the Creepshow anthology film. Something about the artwork (I think it was a predominantly Bernie Wrightson effort, wasn’t it?); I still vividly recall the revulsion I felt at the depiction of strands of saliva stretching between the teeth and lips of screaming victims. “Father’s Day,” and that one where the murderer buries his victims up to their necks at the shore before the tide comes in. The effect on me was deep; so troubling that when I heard Stephen King’s name mentioned on the radio weeks later, I burst into tears. But, y’know, I was ten.
I’m guessing it wasn’t until my early twenties that I got into horror fiction. I consider myself fortunate that my first adult exposure was to Ramsey Campbell (his Cold Print was a revelation), and from him I moved on into the other weird authors (Lovecraft et al.), many of which fared badly in comparison to Campbell.
It was a pleasure to meet you at World Horror Con. The convention was a bit… Sparsely attended, so I enjoyed our conversations. What was your experience?
Jason V Brock: It was awesome meeting you and your wife as well! I was on about eight panels, so it’s all a bit of a blur now. In addition, we attended StokerCon in Las Vegas two weeks later, which was fun. But I must observe that the attendance to both cons was a little on the low side, likely due to the two of them being so closely scheduled.
I’d say that World Horror was better organized, whereas StokerCon was more of a party. Both have their advantages and drawbacks.
What were some other positives about this year’s convention, despite its lack of attendees?
Brock: The best part is hanging out with people, of course. It was great to talk more with old friends such as Jack Ketchum, Michael Bailey, the Collings family, Bailey Hunter, Kevin J. Anderson, Linda Addison, Jeff Strand, and so on. It also affords a chance to make new friends—such as you guys, Darren Shan, and the fine folks working the convention—especially when there are not so many things going on at once, as there was in Vegas, which was a bit jammed with activity. All the panels that I saw at WHC were very good, too.
Another thing I didn’t appreciate until Vegas was how clean the air was in Utah! HAHAHAH! Vegas was just dreadful with the smoking in the casino.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a scholar and self-described (if somewhat reluctant) “antic-fiction” writer, whose work has appeared in Caledonia Dreamin’: Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent, Pandemonium: Ash, 3:AM Magazine, New Writing 13, Prospect Magazine, and Leviathan 4: Cities. His writes criticism for WeirdFictionReview.com and Civilian Global. His novel The Wanderer was released by Perfect Edge Books in 2014.
What’s “Antic Fiction”? Why did you choose that term to describe your work?
I’m fairly ambivalent about genre designations. Part of me is suspicious, both of the taxonomical impulse that lies behind their creation and of their use as marketing labels. I think the best writing will always be hybrid, difficult to categorize, and display an irreverence towards established tropes. But on the other hand, in my main job as an academic and university lecturer, I think genre is an important tool for understanding and teaching how literature works, and why it takes the forms it does. I’ve also always liked those scenes in contemporary music that define their own, abstruse, sometimes ridiculous, genres as a way of expressing their difference from other forms, and as a kind of game. Further, I reckon that thinking in terms of genre can help when attempting to transgress certain ways of writing.
I believe horror is a mode that particularly enables transgression, of all kinds (not just the obvious transgressions of the body or of tastes seen in certain subgenres like splatterpunk and bizarro). Horror occurs in an instant, at a frontier, a border, a limit, and lives in interstices. It is sudden, violent, unsettling. It is the disruption of a situation we thought stable or safe, the shifting of the ground beneath our feet. Therefore I think of it as a genre as a way of crossing borders, rather than as a static thing.
My literary tastes trend toward the grindhouse. Schlock, melodrama, and spooky spectacle of the un-ironic variety. To continue to couch this in terms of the cinema, I prefer John Carpenter over David Lynch; Stuart Gordon over Lars von Trier. Whatever weird fiction might mean, I more often than not prefer it to mean horror, and within that association, I like monsters, creepy settings, unsettling imagery, and a little action. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy fiction that’s intellectual or cerebral. But I like what I read to strike a balance somewhere between fun and intellectual, with the slider closer to the former. It’s all art to me, man—whether it’s the rickety spookhouse ride or the ballet.
I just tend to have more fun at the spookhouse.
It is, however, with great pleasure that I devoured Year’s Best Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly. Koja is a powerful writer and artist, and Kelly’s voluminous reading of horror and weird literature is award-worthy unto itself. Together, they’ve curated a book of sterling quality; diversity in stories, modes, and authorship alike. This is elite weird fiction—yes, even literary in its aspirations—done completely right.
Not every story was my bag of popcorn, of course. But what makes this collection great is that, even when I didn’t vibe with a particular style or narrative, I still recognized that the writing was masterful, and the imagery was haunting. This book has a little something for everyone, and, I’m not afraid to admit, my own tastes and preferences were challenged for the better.
I won’t mention all the stories I enjoyed in this collection (that would be most of them), but I’ll touch on a few. Keep in mind that the stories that I didn’t enjoy were not bad by any means, but were instead just not right for me.
Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” was the perfect story to start the collection. It’s a crime noir yarn with a delirious creature-feature bent. Siobhan Carrol’s “Wendigo Nights” is equal parts The Thing and introspective supernatural meditation. Kima Jones’ “Nine” is a period piece that tells a story of dark juju and a patchwork family battling its influence. Caitlín R. Kiernan turns the monster slayer trope on its head in the pulpy (yes!) selection “Bus Fare.”
Rich Larson laughs off the standard mermaid tale in “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” and explores a would-be father’s fear. Usman T. Malik writes about religious-civil conflict in a foreign-born Re-Animator take in “Resurrection Points.” Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction-character study “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is a subtle examination of identity and rural life (with more than a passing connection to my own dear Colorado).
These selections knocked my socks off—scratching that ghoulish horror itch, or conjuring thoughtful reflection. Again, even the stories not listed here—a couple of which were not to my taste—were still full of striking imagery and impression that lasted well beyond the time I spent reading them.
Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an anthology that, despite its chronological-inspired name, will remain evergreen. I have not read Volume One, but I should. With Volume Three right around the corner, there’s no better time than to get caught up now.
Highly recommended for fans of dark speculative fiction, or for those looking for an entry point into the vast and growing body of high-quality weird work… and recommended for lowbrow horror junkies, too.
Riding the Centipede by John Claude Smith
Published by Omnium Gatherum
Review by Tom Breen
It’s surprising to learn that Riding the Centipede is John Claude Smith’s debut novel, because the tale, which blends noir with weird fiction, Beat mysticism with pulp zest, and mixes in other genres along the way, reads like the work of a writer expertly skilled in the long form.
Smith’s novel begins with one of the most basic detective novel premises: a mysterious rich woman wants a private eye to track down her missing brother, who is lost in some unknown California demimonde. So far, we could be in a Hammett or Chandler story, trudging down those famed mean streets with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
The fun in Smith’s tale, of course, comes from how far he’s willing to twist that familiar framework, and by the end of the novel, he’s wrenched it so far out of its normal shape that a reader is more apt to think of hallucinatory dream journeys rather than old school two-fisted crime fiction, as everyone from William Burroughs to Marilyn Monroe has made an appearance, our sense of the possible has been altered, and we have learned about one of the most unpleasant acts it’s possible to do with a man who looks like a rat.
The novel is told, in alternating chapters, through the eyes of Terrance Blake, the gumshoe archetype; Marlon Teagarden, the scion of a Hollywood couple whose peccadilloes went beyond even the normal Hollywood decadence, now living a semi-feral existence in pursuit of the ultimate high; and Rudolph Chernobyl, a nuclear-powered hit man whose only resemblance to the heavies of classic noir is his willingness to use absolutely brutal violence to get whatever he wants.
Blake is deep into a sporadic, fruitless, years-long search for Teagarden, whose older sister, Jane, has never stopped looking for him when a visit to San Francisco, heartland of the Beats, brings the detective a series of strange clues that seem like the only good leads he’s ever gotten.
Teagarden, immersed in a personal world of unimaginable depravity in hopes of locating some ultimate, truth-conferring experience, is looking to “Ride the Centipede,” the term for a narcotic-mystical experience guarded by a version of Naked Lunch author Burroughs, who may only be cribbing from an even stranger, more obscure author named Peter Solon, who hasn’t been heard from since his second book was published, but who can be found by those who know how to look.
Everyone in the novel is searching for something: Teagarden’s quest, in fact, resembles a profane, modern version of medieval visionary literature of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is only the greatest and most famous example. In these accounts, the protagonist would travel through terrifying, Boschian underworlds and hells before getting a glimpse of the paradise that awaited the faithful, and would return to the world utterly changed.
Teagarden, who has as much to escape from as he has to gain by chasing the elusive Centipede, resembles one of these pilgrims in the purity of his intentions if not in any outward piety, but he has to contend with the other characters’ own searches: his sister, never giving up on him no matter how depraved his existence has become; Blake, looking for Teagarden and at the same time trying to find some way to forgive himself for a wasted life of missed opportunities; and the terrifying Chernobyl, an art lover, who is hired by a mysterious party to track down Teagarden, and who begins to suspect that whatever the young Hollywood exile is looking for may finally match his own monstrous cravings.
Where Smith excels is in taking familiar elements from a range of genres and throwing them all into a blender, then throwing the resulting mixture against the nearest wall. The novel contains science fiction, horror, mystery, experimental fiction, and, in maybe its most effective passage, high weird fiction, as Blake comes face to face with the elusive writer Solon in an unforgettable encounter that is absolutely unique and powerfully effective in depicting the truly otherworldly.
Other critics have suggested ours is a golden age for weird fiction, horror fiction, or whatever this type of literature is called, and novels like Riding the Centipede are an illustration of why: a new generation of horror writers, while schooled in the classics (Lovecraft gets a wry mention in the novel), are taking all of literary history as their toolbox as they fashion something new and splendidly terrifying.