“Methods of Ascension” is a study in the many faces of horror. The domestic horror of family, cosmic horrors, the horrors of bitterness and loss, all rolled into one yellow ichor-soaked rag. Tell us something of what inspired the story.
The inspiration for this story came from a few different places. The initial spark came, unsurprisingly, from a YouTube video sent to me by my brother, who I should make clear, is nothing like the brother in the story. The video was a sort of mini-lecture on the history of depictions of alien life in art and media. There was something about the video, and the lecturer, that I found vaguely sinister in a way that I couldn’t fully articulate. The second major point of inspiration came (again, this likely won’t come as a surprise) from a dream. One morning I woke up with this idea in my head about all the buildings inside of dreams having shared origins in the collective unconscious. Right after waking up, I thought this was incredibly profound, but then I told my wife, and in the process of describing the idea, I realized that I sounded a bit unhinged, and the idea was not as coherent as I first thought. But I sensed that there was something interesting about the concept, and potentially, something quite eerie.
The other major source of inspiration for this story came from my (adopted) home state of Wisconsin and the particular textures of life in the Midwest. My in-laws have a cabin in northern Wisconsin, about a thirty-minute drive from the Upper Peninsula, and while it’s lovely and serene up there, it’s also very isolated, and occasionally ominous. Having the setting in mind helped me create and shape the story’s emotional core, as a lot of what’s wrong with these two men has to do with a particular brand of Midwestern stoicism.
You make excellent use of dream logic, and the subversive denial of what would later reveal itself, when the main character comes up from the basement to find Rob in the chair and the shadow below the deer head extending from the wall. Did you research anything about dreams and/or their symbolism while writing this story?
While I had the idea for this story floating around in my head for a while, the actual writing of the first draft took place at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop over the course of a few days, so I didn’t have much time for research. In a way, I think this was a good thing, as I often find it difficult to synthesize research into my stories in a way that feels organic or interesting. With this story, I was forced to rely on my subconscious to do a lot of the work regarding the symbology and Vespra’s program. With horror, and weird fiction, in particular, I’ve found that those subconscious impulses tend to help generate some of the best and strangest material.
When I do research for short stories, it often has more to do with trying to nail down the voice. I wanted this narrator to sound conversational but rehearsed, poetic but not contrived, so while I was writing the first few pages, I went back and reread one of my favorite stories, “Retreat” by Wells Tower, which helped me identify the register and tone that “Methods of Ascension” would utilize.
I loved how you took the mundane elements of life—hanging drywall, yolk dripping onto the breakfast plate, fishing in a shanty—and used them as blades to cut a hole in the reader’s imagination to let the horror in. What is it about twisting ordinary elements just so that makes them such engaging elements of horror? Do you have any favorite literary examples that encouraged this approach?
That’s a great question, and one that I’m not sure I’ll be able to satisfactorily answer! I recently finished Mark Fisher’s fantastic book The Weird and the Eerie, and in it, he cites the primary component of weird fiction as the sensation of “wrongness.” Fisher describes weird objects or entities that feel as though they should not exist, saying, “The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.” I think it’s this feeling or idea that’s genuinely unsettling. When presented with things that don’t conform to our prior conceptions, we realize the world may not work in the way that we thought it did, and our notions of reality must be realigned.
One way to achieve this effect in fiction is by, as you said, “twisting the ordinary.” To my mind, the writer that does this better than anyone is Robert Aickman. His stories always begin in normal domestic settings, and then at some point in the narrative, his characters cross an invisible border, and the world begins to warp in subtle but unnerving ways. His story “The Hospice” is filled with wonderful examples of everyday objects or things imbued with the quality of “wrongness” that Fisher describes. Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” is another great example of this approach. Brian Evenson’s story “Past Reno” begins with a fantastic, unsettling depiction of a convenience store that has “six aisles completely dedicated to jerky,” which I find both hilarious and upsetting. And while I had yet to read his fiction when I wrote this story, Nathan Ballingrud is so, so good at taking domestic settings and injecting them with these grotesque and beautiful uncanny elements. His story “Sunbleached” is outstanding (and available to read online at Nightmare).
You are no stranger to dark fiction. What first stirred your interest in writing, and writing horror in particular?
I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember. At this stage in my life, it’s hard to say when exactly that interest began. My interest in horror, on the other hand, is easier to pinpoint. While I have always been a fan of genre fiction as a reader, my writing has tended to veer toward realism. But in 2016 a friend of mine told me about Brian Evenson’s story collection A Collapse of Horses. After leaving my MFA program, I had developed a fairly rigid idea of what fiction could be, and A Collapse of Horses along with Evenson’s novel Last Days totally shattered that notion. Around that same time, I also got my hands on a copy of The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which, like Evenson’s work, opened up my understanding of the scope of possibilities that horror presents. It was in that anthology that I read my first stories by Kelly Link, Thomas Ligotti, Robert Aickman, and Stephen Graham Jones. These writers were operating on an aesthetic wavelength that I intuitively understood. I had encountered this wavelength in other fiction before, but in The Weird it was distilled so precisely that it helped me finally understand what it was I wanted to accomplish as a writer.
What’s next for Dan Stintzi? What can readers expect in 2020?
I’m currently working on a novel. It’s a near-future crime story about drugs, simulated realities, body modification, and free will. I’m hoping to get a few more horror stories out into the world in 2020, as well.
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