Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Stephen Graham Jones

The story has a wonderful voice, blending the heartfelt challenges of the preteen years and the darker, desperate horrors of adulthood. What inspired the setting and tone for this tale?

There’s that Tobias Wolff story “Bullet in the Brain” where a character says, magically, “they is,” and, like that dude in the story, that kind of rings a chime in my head. Then fast-forward to friends’ kids being over all the time, my kids in that mix, and then one day one of the older kids — six, seven — is kind hunched down by one of the two-year-olds who’s fallen asleep on the floor of the living room, and I was walking by when one of the moms asked that kid what he’s doing. His answer was that he was “patting him,” and that same chime rang again, way off in the distance. I had to see if I could pull it closer, if I could get it close enough to capture it on the page. And, at first, that’s all the story was, these kids out in the trees telling scary stories. But I was legit surprised when what happened on the surface of the lake happened. So I had to look ahead a few years, see how all that was going to play out.

You handle horror with a deft hand, often exploring the monsters lurking within our own humanity and pain. What is it about “Raphael” that calls to you from the shadows?

That you can think you’ve left all the horror behind you, that you’re good now. But there’s still tendrils connecting you back to that moment. There’s guilt. You may have got away, you may have, in a sense, “won,” but winning in horror always comes at a steep price. You have to kind of carve a piece of yourself out, to survive. And, when you do that, it leaves a little cavity where something else can burrow in, hide away. Grow and fester for a decade or two, until it takes a reading, decides the moment’s right.

This is a story of transformation — child to adult, life to death, passion to pain, perhaps even sanity to madness. Readers can connect to any character in the story through these transformative avenues. As a writer, what do you consider the most important facet of storytelling when it comes to that connection with a reader?

You’ve got to get the reader identifying with the protagonist. And the way you usually do that, it’s by building that protagonist with something the readers recognizes in themselves, be it how they also can’t tie a shoelace to stay tied or how they also don’t like slaughtering koala bears without reason. Even with the Patrick Bateman characters of the world, you can still see a bit of yourself in there. Or in Ketchum’s Ruth, from The Girl Next Door. Early on you’re thinking she’s all right, right? You’re thinking you could be cool like that? Or maybe what you identify with, it’s how completely lost this character feels in the crowd at a baseball game, or how they, too, wake up in the night sure someone was just standing in the doorway. Fiction is made of particulars. It’s the writer’s job to arrange those particulars into a mosaic that feels like a system, that suggests a real and actual world. Which I say because these avenues of identification I’m talking about, they sound like a push to “universally appeal” to the reader, to tap into commonalities — No, if I drop my candy bar on a hotel carpet, I’m not going to eat it. You either? How odd. But what I’m trying to argue for are the peculiarities that can serve as a kind of metonym for a person’s whole life, for their whole character. When you’re reading, you get a sense of that, and if this person makes sense in that way, you can kind of step into that outline, see the story from the protagonist’s point-of-view. It’s all about getting the reader to engage, to care, to root for this or that, to anticipate one outcome or another (expectations you’re then duty-bound to undercut). But the way to do that, it’s by laying down real characters on the page. No: real people. And then letting them do what they do for their reasons, not yours.

Do you feel children have a clearer understanding of what it means to be afraid?

I think kids don’t necessarily have the shame involved with being afraid that we’ve all been conditioned to have. I mean, we’re supposed to be all rational and adult, we’re supposed to be able to leave the monsters in playland. For kids, though, the whole world’s playland. So being afraid of monsters, it’s just the rational response, as far they’re concerned. And it’s not at all bad to believe in monsters, either. Because cracking that door open, it doesn’t just spill monsters. It can spill some beautiful stuff into the world too. An enchanted world can be dangerous, sure. But it can also be pretty great.

I once had the pleasure of attending a one-day seminar you taught in Seattle where you discussed various narrative forms and styles, exploring how each method contributed to the overall mood of the story. Is there a particular narrative form you prefer over the others? One you’ve yet to try?

Epistolary seems to always come easiest to me. So, I don’t allow myself to do it very often. And second-person is pretty much my natural angle into telling a story. But I know that readers are kind of prejudiced against second person — especially in horror, as second person inheres the present tense, and, if I’m remembering correctly from The Stand, isn’t Harold Lauder kind of made fun of for writing horror in second-person present tense? For good reason, I think. In horror, it’s a tactic that comes off kind of cheap — it’s kind of like saying I can’t scare with you content or development, so here’s some technique, hope you don’t notice. I can’t think of a form I haven’t tried, though. I mean, I’ve done chapters of novels with no punctuation, I’ve done them as wintercounts, I’ve done them as glossaries. I haven’t tried a PowerPoint slideshow, I don’t guess, but I’m not sure I get to now, either. I guess I’ve yet to try telling a story from an animal’s point-of-view. Or an animal’s voice. Most of the time those come off corny, yeah. Every once in a while, though, one’ll really sing. My favorite is probably Gardner Dozois’s “When the Great Days Came.” Though the monster in Joe R. Lansdale’s “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program” is, on the outside at least, an animal as well . . .

What’s next for Stephen Graham Jones? What literary horrors await your fans?

There’s The Faster Redder Road: the Best Unamerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones that just came out in April, edited by Theo Van Alst. It’s definitely got some horror in it. Then in the fall there’s A Critical Companion to the Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones, edited by Billy Stratton. And there’re always stories, and there’s one novel in rewrites now, that I can’t talk about yet but so wish I could . . .

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Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell is a forty-seven-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. She is hard at work plotting her second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.