“The Dying Season” has an almost cinematic opening. An idyllic resort, boats in the water, a run along a gravel path; I could almost imagine the scene shot in pull-back, opening with a wide angle lens. Then comes the hint of tension, the intrusive memories of the night before and John’s accusations, followed by the strange thin girl at the door. This subtle shift sets the stage for the coming darkness. How much attention did you give this opening scene?
A lot of attention, actually—I didn’t specifically think of it as cinematic until you mentioned it just now, but that is effectively what I had in mind to achieve with that opening scene. I really admire writers who sort of set the stage in that way. I think of it as slightly old-fashioned, and in this case, I don’t mean it as a pejorative; simply that it is a type of opening I think is less fashionable than it once was, where stories tend to open by throwing you into the middle of things. I like the way it eases the writer into the storytelling mode and establishes the setting in the same way that such a cinematic opener would. The story is also based on a very real place, and I went around that place taking photos of the places I wanted to describe in this opening scene in hopes of making it as visual as possible.
I love how you blended some of the darker elements of classic faerie tales and modern horror, one feeding off the other until, in the end, we stand with Sylvia in the shadows, uncertain if we have unknowingly stepped out of our world and into another. What is it about the possibilities in this intersection of old and new horror that appealed to you as a writer? Tell us a bit about what inspired this tale.
I wrote this story specifically for the anthology it appeared in, Aickman’s Heirs, so Robert Aickman was definitely a major inspiration. I wanted it to be a “strange story” like those Aickman wrote, with that sense of the slippage of reality. As to the intersection of old and new horror—I think our genre has an incredibly rich history, and it’s a tradition that I am just straight-up in love with. What interests me is taking things from that tradition and recasting them in a setting and a mindset that is contemporary, and, in some cases, within a more naturalistic or realistic setting than some genre fiction is known for. The illusion of reality in storytelling—both in fiction and film—is something I love. I love that texture—I want to feel the roughness of the sofa someone is sitting on and taste the tepidness of the tea they’re drinking and hear the register of the voice of the person they’re talking to; I want to create a world that is so familiar and then upend it completely with the intrusion of something inexplicable.
I talk a lot about the attraction of horror for me being a kind of sense of touching the ecstatic, and I think in some ways, the darkness in classic faerie tales is something that evokes that ecstasy more effectively for me than a lot of traditional horror tropes. This is the attraction of a writer like Arthur Machen for me.
In this story in particular, I took this other world and injected it into one of the most mundane settings I could think of—because let’s face it, most of us spend most of our time in mundane settings, and I love the idea that at any moment that mundanity could be overturned, even if it is by something horrific. I think this ties into my love of portal stories as a child—like C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, in the Chronicles of Narnia, when Jill and Eustace are being bullied in the schoolyard of their dreadful school and suddenly they go through a door and they’re in another world. What could be a better contrast between the dreariest mundanity imaginable and something magical than that? This story came from a very different sort of place, though; the kernel of an idea for it popped into my head as a kind of after-the-home-invasion story, something about people who would be living in a transient place like this and claim that they were friends of friends when they’d actually murdered the people in the house where they were living and moved in there themselves, but that’s such a standard and, to me, not very interesting horror trope that I knew as soon as I thought of it would go in a different direction. So that’s a very long rambling answer for you about all the places the story came from.
Sylvia is a fully realized character—the victim of an abusive spouse, an outsider looking in, a woman with her own hopes and dreams being slowly suffocated by fear and abuse. How did you approach writing a character in an abusive relationship?
I feel like I should start out by saying here, because at least a couple of people have wondered, that I didn’t base the dynamic between Sylvia and John on a past relationship of my own. I’m a writer; making things up is what we do! But I am fascinated by human relationships, and by romantic and sexual relationships in particular, and the subtle psychological cruelties and manipulations that people can visit upon one another within that framework. In this story, there’s a real power imbalance between Sylvia and John, and that power imbalance is a critical part of having Sylvia start off in the story on the back foot and struggle throughout to assert herself. I think one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is that it causes a person to doubt themselves and their own version of reality; that was something I wanted to get at in the story, and of course, this is what’s happening not just in Sylvia trying to get a handle on her perception of her relationship and who she is within that relationship but the entire reality of the world around her. Both realities are crumbling.
“The Dying Season” won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, a well-deserved honor, and many of your stories have been collected in Year’s Best anthologies. You are also a history scholar, a playwright, and dabble in comics. Are there any writing challenges you have yet to tackle, an unknown that inspires you?
In terms of doing other types of writing, mostly what they have done for me is reaffirm how thoroughly I am at heart a fiction writer. I had the opportunity to write a short play and I had another opportunity to write a short comic (on which I collaborated with director and screenwriter Sean Hogan—it hasn’t come out yet), and while I really enjoyed both, I also found that they reinforced for me how much I truly love writing fiction above any other medium. I know artists for whom this type of switching between mediums is relatively painless, but that isn’t the case for me.
But there are two scary directions I want to go in in 2017: I want to finish a novel, and I’d like to write something with a historical background. The novel writing is daunting just because I’ve been writing short stories for so long now that it feels like I’m having to learn how to write all over again in the novel form. As for the historical thing, about a year and a half ago, Priya Sharma asked me if I was interested in writing anything historical and I said I would love to, but I was too afraid of getting things wrong! But a few months ago I was at Whitby Abbey, and it made me think about Nicola Griffith’s book Hild, about the seventh century abbess Hilda of Whitby, and suddenly I was overcome with a longing to draw on my own background in and love of that time period, and history in general, and try to write some fiction set perhaps in Anglo-Saxon England or maybe some other time and place that interests me.
I think it’s really important for a writer or an artist in any medium to keep challenging themselves—and trying to do anything historical is going to be a huge challenge for me. I realize that it’s also in direct contrast to my love of contemporary settings I was praising in the first question, but hey, change is good. But don’t expect to see anything new from me in that vein for a couple of years!
Anyway, I also don’t intend by any means to abandon contemporary settings. I have written a lot of stories over the past few years that are inspired by or explore the work of writers in the weird and horror tradition, and that’s partly a result of what people have been asking me to write but also partly me chasing a particular vein of interest. Outside of one thing I’m working on for a deadline next year, though, I think I’m going to be moving away from that too, for a while at least. So I’m definitely feeling the urge to move in some different directions.
Are you a pantser or plotter? Do you keep to a set writing schedule?
Definitely a pantser! I am incapable of thinking like a plotter; I have tried it so many times, over the years, and I just can’t make a story move forward unless I am in the act of writing the story itself.
I wish I had a set writing schedule! My life’s been a bit chaotic over the last few years and hasn’t really allowed such a luxury, but I am much happier when I have one, and one of my goals for 2017 is to reestablish that.
Stephen King tells us, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” To whom do you turn when you want to get your reading on? Who inspires you between the covers?
Oh my goodness! Have you got a few days? There are so many wonderful writers who inspire me, and there is never remotely enough time to read as much as I would love to. Where do I begin? Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, Alan Garner, A.S. Byatt, M. John Harrison, Sarah Waters, Lisa Tuttle, Daphne du Maurier, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen, Donna Tartt, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Paul Theroux, Graham Greene, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Hand, Fritz Leiber, Caitlin Kiernan, Nathan Ballingrud, Glen Hirshberg, Ray Bradbury, Steve Rasnic Tem, T.E.D. Klein—and honestly, that’s just a sampling. I could go on and on. And then there are, of course, a whole slew of other writers that I don’t really see as influencing me in my own work necessarily but who I love just as much and who certainly keep me passionate about the written word. There are too many good books in the world. What a nice problem to have!
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