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Interview: John Langan

John Langan’s newest book is a collection, Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife, younger son, and a room full of books—so, so many books.

First off, congratulations on the release of your fourth collection, Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies (Word Horde, 2020). I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy and this is a pretty hefty collection, coming in at almost 400 pages. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, perhaps including how it was organized?

Thanks very much! Children of the Fang collects twenty-three stories of varying lengths, from short-short to novella, the majority of them written over a five-year period. In putting the stories together, I had in mind the big collections I read as a kid, King’s Skeleton Crew and Barker’s Books of Blood (granted, the Barker was published in the US in six individual volumes). It’s organized mostly in chronological order, with the exception of the last two stories, which I flip-flopped because I thought the second to last one made a better last one, and a couple of short-short stories I smuggled into the story notes.

As with your previous collections, this latest one has a memorable title which follows suit to your prior books—Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, and Sefira and Other Betrayals. In those, the “and Other ______s” seem to really capture the tone for the stories within, but at what stage do you settle on a collection’s name? Are the title story and the “and Other ______s” guides at the beginning that help shape the selections, or do they come afterwards, once you’ve pieced every-thing else together?

The subtitle tends to come after I’ve roughed out the collection’s contents and decided on the first half of the title. Sometimes it’s obvious—as in the case of my third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals—others, it takes me a while to figure out. I should add, I think each collection could have at least one other subtitle, maybe more. In the case of Children of the Fang, for example, while writing the story notes for it, I became aware just how many of the stories featured trips to other(wordly) landscapes, to the extent that the subtitle to my second collection, “and other monstrous geographies,” could have been applied to it, as well.

As a sort of follow up, since you’ve now put together four collections, are you able to see thematic patterns in your work over time? If so, do you see these as reflections of working through different themes at different stages in your writing life, or are any apparent unities of theme more a result of the curation?

That’s an interesting question. The answer would be, it depends. To return to Sefira for a moment: in that case, I was very much aware of that these stories were rather obsessively returning to a central theme. In my other collections, I’ve been aware more of certain aesthetic preoccupations, of a general interest in exploring the assorted traditions associated with a variety of monsters, say, of employing different narrative approaches to the material of the horror story, of responding to the work of previous writers and occasionally filmmakers, most of whom have worked in the horror field. I should mention here, though, that the critic S.J. Bagley once asked me if one of my major themes wasn’t time, and while I hadn’t thought of that before, the minute I heard it, it struck me as absolutely correct.

In addition to many pieces of short fiction, you’ve also published two novels—House of Windows (2009) and The Fisherman (2016), the latter of which won the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. I believe it may have been in the acknowledgments to House of Windows where you wrote: “This book had a hard time finding a home: the genre people weren’t happy with all the literary stuff; the literary people weren’t happy with all the genre stuff.” A decade later, do you still think that sort of resistance to hybridism exists in general publishing? How about in the small presses?

It’s been a while since I’ve shopped a novel to one of the big presses, so I’m not sure how well I can speak to that aspect of the question. I’ve had stories published in several of Ellen Datlow’s big-press anthologies, pretty much all of which have seemed to me to sit in that in-between area, and no one from those presses has complained (that I’m aware of, anyway). Granted, this is different from publishing a novel. It’s certainly my impression that the big presses, like all major producers of entertainment, have remained fairly conservative in the work they’re willing to publish. So a writer such as Michael Cisco, one of our contemporary geniuses, remains unknown outside the small press world. Obviously, this speaks highly of the small press, which, due to the presence of the Internet, can and has been more effective in advertising and distributing its work, but I’m not sure it speaks too well of the bigger presses.

The Fisherman was an excellent novel, one which has often been described as “weird” fiction. Weird fiction is a term that can be sort of hard to pin down, but how do you think of your own work—is horror, weird, or something else?

For a long time, I’ve thought of my work as horror fiction, and to be honest, that’s still how I see it. I suppose it’s because the model of horror fiction I have comes from King’s Danse Macabre, and also Ramsey Campbell’s essays and reviews. It’s a big tent capable of covering Thomas Pynchon’s V and Brian Keene’s Ghoul, with space in-between for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.

However, I found that when I described my work as horror to readers who weren’t familiar with the genre, shutters would come down over their eyes, and whatever else I might say to explain my work would go unheard, blocked off by their association of the word horror with the worst (usually filmed) examples of the field. For a little while, I was self-righteously satisfied with that, but then I started thinking maybe I should try to reach out to those readers a little more. Describing what I wrote as ghost stories didn’t feel quite accurate, nor did it receive a much better response, so I finally settled for saying, “Stephen King kind of stuff,” which, due to King’s greater cultural acceptance, has tended to receive a better response.

(But I still write horror.)

In my mind, there are certain pieces of your work that would be undoubtedly “weird”—The Fisherman, of course, as well as short pieces like “Bor Urus” in Sefira and Other Betrayals. To me, the overt horror stories often show our world intruded upon by the unreal, but the weirdness in those other works is in how they peel back a veil. They don’t just offer a monstrous disruption, but a glimpse ofsomething vastly bigger, perhaps incomprehensibly so, that would drastically change our way of conceiving of reality. Do you notice a similar distinction along these lines in your work between “weird” and “horror,” or is there a different line you draw?

I tend to see the kinds of stories you’re describing as points on a continuum, with room for all manner of distinctions in between. As I recall, Lovecraft used weird and horror interchangeably, and I suppose I follow that trend. I’m reminded here of the epigraph to Ramsey Campbell’s novel, Midnight Sun, which quotes a critic (David Aylward?) distinguishing between writers of supernatural horror of the past, who strove for awe and achieved horror, and the present, who strive for horror and achieve disgust. It’s a facile comparison, but it gets at the variety of aims within the horror field.

As an author who works in multiple forms—short stories, novellas, novelettes, and novels —which of those are your favorite to write?

I like them all. The very short stories continue to be the ones I struggle the most with, since my natural inclination seems to be towards the expansive. For that reason, I’m most comfortable working in the long-novelette and beyond. Was it Thomas Wolfe who said, “I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer”? Me, too, Tom. These days, I find myself tending more and more in the direction of the novella, with an eye towards the next novel (or three). But I apply myself towards the shorter stuff as a way to keep challenging myself as a writer.

Elsewhere you’ve talked about how genre stories—the zombie story, the vampire story, etc.—can serve as structures akin to various poetic forms (e.g., a sestina, a sonnet). In that way, genre can sometimes serve as a set of constraints which channel an author’s creativity into new and surprising expressions. Your short fiction has explored this to great effect, with one of my personal favorites being “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky,” which is an entirely new take on a classic monster. Which of these genre experiments is your favorite?

It’s a cheat, I know, but I love all of them. I will say, though, that there is a story in Children of the Fang called “The Communion of Saints” that makes nods to several of the monsters of the 1970s and 80s, as well as to King’s It, which does more than I realized when I was writing it.

Building a little more on that, are there any stories that started off as a reworking of well-worn genre tropes, but which ended up so far afield that readers might not recognize their original form?

Yes. As its title suggests, my first novel, House of Windows, started out to be my take on the haunted house trope. There’s something of that still in it, I suppose, but I see it now as much more about the curse or malediction; though I suspect readers will have no trouble recognizing the haunted house elements. There’s also a story in Children of the Fang called “Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow,” that’s a kind of riff on the idea of the kaiju, or maybe it’s the Ray Harryhausen movies of my childhood, but is also a lot of other things.

I think many readers would agree that one consistent aspect of your short fiction is its stylistic inventiveness and, as mentioned above, your tendency to draw on different forms. When you develop these, do you conceive of the subject matter and the form in different stages, then meld them together? If so, which comes first and, if not, how do you develop the synergy between the two pieces?

At any given moment, it seems, I have ideas for kinds of stories I would like to write (say, a story in the form of a film script) and ideas for monsters or tropes I’d like to employ (say, the Sasquatch). I wish it were as simple as thinking, “Ah, then, I’ll just write my movie-script story about the Sasquatch!” Usually, there has to be a third element (at least) that draws those two things together and makes them make sense. That third element tends to appear somewhat mysteriously: usually, it steps off the elevator from the deeper levels of my brain without warning and everything starts to fall into place. After that, what happens is a kind of movement among the narrative construction, the material of the story, and whatever the other thing is, each shaping the other two even as it is shaped in turn by them. Depending, there may be excursions online or into books for relevant information about some aspect of the story; depending on how it’s going, there may also be conversations with my wife or younger son or a close friend like Laird Barron or Paul Tremblay.

While we’re on that topic, then, what is your writing process like? Given the apparent level of detail and care in some of your stories, on the one hand it seems like perhaps you have meticulous planning, but on the other hand your narrative voice often tends to feel almost effortless, and that sort of natural flow feels like it may organically develop. Do you have a “standard” process for your stories? Are your stories primarily shaped at the outline stage or in the edit?

I try to write every day. These days, I find I write better at night than I do in the morning. If I can complete a page a day I can be satisfied; though I’m happy if I can push on even a little to a second page. While I’m writing a story, I’m always thinking about it. No matter what else I’m doing, there’s someplace in my mind, some level of my consciousness, where the Fornits are trying to figure out what the story is going to be and how it’s going to be that. The majority of the time, when I begin a story, I’m not sure where it’s going to end up and then, in the writing, I become aware of what the ending is going to be, at which point, I start writing towards that ending—although the ending may change once I arrive at it. I think my stories are primarily shaped in the writing, with the clarification that I tend to edit heavily as I go.

Similarly, I wonder if you could pinpoint what your typical “unit” of construction is when you’re writing a story. While your prose is immaculate but often in service of an unobtrusive narrative voice; as a result, while reviewers and readers sometimes focus on prose at a sentence level, your work seems to be constructed on longer units. Is it perhaps the paragraph? The scene? Something longer?

This question fascinates me, as it’s a way I haven’t thought about my fiction before. I usually start with a sentence that grips me, that promises more to come. This quickly expands to the level of paragraph, which expands to the level of page, which expands to the level of the most recent several pages, which expands to the level of the entire story. As I go, though, I’m constantly looking back over what I’ve done, tweaking a word here, a sentence there, adding a block of dialogue or a paragraph or several paragraphs as needed. It’s a back-and-forth process in which I’m moving from the micro to the macro, shuttling among the different parts of the story. Some days, I won’t move forward in a story: I’ll spend my time filling in a space in it that’s suddenly become apparent to me, a place where there’s a gap of some kind that needs to be addressed.

Another aspect that some readers may consider particularly “Langanesque” is the story within a story. In your shorter works this is sometimes an interlude or an achronological recounting. There’s a particular standout use of this technique in The Fisherman, with an extended recounting of the local lore. Do you recall when you first began working with that style, or what drew you to it?

It was there in my first published horror story, “On Skua Island;” though, interestingly the stories and novels I wrote before that were more straightforward affairs—which suggests a connection between the technique and the genre, doesn’t it? I’m not sure why that should be, unless it’s because so many of my favorite examples of the field, from Robert E. Howard’s “The Horror from the Mound” to Straub’s Ghost Story to King’s Pet Sematary, employ it. Yet, to speak more generally, many of the works and writers I’ve studied throughout my academic career employ versions of the nested narrative, from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to James’s Turn of the Screw to many of Conrad’s works (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, etc.) to Ethan Frome to The Great Gatsby to The Professor’s House to All the King’s Men. Beyond this, I think it has something to do with coming from a family in which storytelling played more of a role than I was always conscious of. Both my father and mother told stories of their youth growing up in Scotland during the Second World War, of their early years after immigrating to the US—my father would recount for my brother and me the plots of movies in great detail. So I think it may have been one of those cases where the narrative conventions of a book like Lord Jim or Ghost Story aligned on a deeper level of my consciousness with the experience of my youth. Perhaps my embrace of this technique also explains why I found more success with my horror stories than I had with the work preceding them.

On a technical note, how have you learned to employ these time- and/or attention-shifts to improve the piece as a whole and without sacrificing the effectiveness of the larger narrative? What kind of balancing act goes on there?

Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve learned anything in a formal sense. Whenever I interpolate a long narrative within another narrative, I’m aware of the demands I’m going to be placing on the reader’s attention, the strain to which I’m likely submitting the framing narrative. I’ve largely been fortunate in terms of the reception these experiments have received—so maybe the lesson is, be bold with your experiments?

Now, let me ask you for a story within a story. You were one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Award, which recognizes “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” Could you tell us how that came about?

A group of us (Brett Cox, JoAnn Cox, myself, Sarah Langan, and Paul Tremblay) decided that the horror field was robust enough to support a new award, especially since we’d received word that the International Horror Guild Award was in the process of winding down after recognizing some brilliant work. As I recall, it was Brett Cox who had the idea of contacting the Jackson estate to ask if we could use her name for the award; once they agreed, we were off and running. For the first couple of years, Brett, myself, Sarah, and Paul read for the award’s categories, which was both exhausting—since the award’s remit is so large—and cheering—because it reinforced and expanded my sense of all the great work being done in the darker end of the pool.

Shirley Jackson certainly has left her mark on a wide variety of authors and works. On the topic of influences, your collection Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies has story notes which identify the specific authors whose influence was foremost in your mind when writing the stories. I found this particularly fascinating, because not only are there the expected classics—Lovecraft or King, for instance—but also much more contemporary writers, like Laird Barron or Michael Cisco. There are also several non-horror authors and even filmmakers, as well. What are your thoughts about continuing to be influenced by newer works even as you yourself build an influential body of work, rather than just returning to the sources you may have read in your formative years? What about drawing influence from outside the genre or even the medium?

I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Lethem the other week, and he used the metaphor of the slag heap to describe that pile of influences that melts together during your youth and whose radiation continues to heat what you write afterwards. I’m aware of a core of such influences reaching back to my childhood and early teens, a list that includes Howard, King, Straub, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, and Alan Moore, to name a few. There will still be moments when I’m writing and I’ll realize I’m drawing on one or more of those figures. At the same time, I think it’s useful for me as a writer to continue to be open to the effect that newer writers—both in the “newer to me” and “more recent” senses of the word—might have on my work. (As it were, to add more material to the slag heap.) I have read and continue to read with great interest the work of friends and contemporaries such as Laird Barron, Dan Chaon, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, Gemma Files, Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Glen Hirshberg, Marlon James, Stephen Graham Jones, Victor LaValle, Kelly Link, Livia Llewellyn, S.P. Miskowski, and Colson Whitehead—and also such departed figures as Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Graham Joyce, Vernon Lee, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Lucius Shepard (whom I find myself missing more and more the longer he’s gone). What I’ve said about fiction also applies to the other arts, as well.

This may be an awkward question, but where do you see your own influence on the genre? If that’s too uncomfortable, you can pretend I asked: “What other contemporary authors do you think will have an impact on the field?”

As far as the influence of my work goes, I have no idea. Obviously, I hope my work is making a contribution to the field, but it’s difficult for me to see what, if any, that is. It’s easier for me to see the effects of my contemporaries, to recognize the impact a writer like Laird Barron has had and continues to have on the horror genre. I’m not sure any of my compatriots has energized and revitalized it in the numerous ways that he has—though I think both Victor LaValle and Paul Tremblay’s recent novels probably are. I think everyone is still catching up to Kelly Link, too. There are a host of terrific writers at work right now, but these are the figures whose work I believe has been responsible for seismic changes in the horror field.

Of course, it’s not just other artists that influence one’s work, but the world we live in. At the time we’re conducting this interview, things are in dramatic upheaval. We’re still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic and adjusting to new social distancing requirements. Have these circumstances had an effect on your own work or working process?

Absolutely. I’ve found it much more difficult to function, let alone, to write, during this period. Everything has felt like more of a struggle. I’ve tried to fight this as best I could—by getting out of the house as often as I can to take my younger son fishing, say, and reading in the car for a few hours while he goes in search of trout. I’ve tried to catch up on my Netflix and Prime queues. I’ve tried to listen to episodes of favorite podcasts I’ve fallen behind on, things such as The Horror Show with Brian Keene and This Is Horror. It’s all helped, but things are still difficult.

Because you’re a teacher and so have both a deep knowledge of the genre but also regular contact with college students, I wonder if you have any expectations about how horror and weird fiction will respond to the pandemic? Do you think that there will be a change to reflect a “new normal” in the wake of Covid—with stories that reflect social distancing, calls for demilitarization of the police, and other shifts in the world? Or do you think that writers will try to write backwards towards the “old normal”?

I suspect the answer is “all of the above.” Certainly, plague narratives have a long and venerable place in the larger horror genre. Indeed, Paul Tremblay’s forthcoming Survivor Song is almost unbearably prescient in its portrayal of the early days of dangerous pandemic. Actually, Paul’s book is an interesting example to consider. While writing it, he took stock of the situation in the United States at the time and extrapolated from it. I imagine that a number of writers will do something similar, look at the way things are right now and write their narratives accordingly. It’s an interesting question: is it possible, at this point, knowing what we know, to “write backwards” in any kind of a serious way? It would be nice to think not, but I’m guessing that’s not true.

Finally, other than Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies, what’s next for John Langan? In addition to any concrete plans or releases, are there any new ideas or projects that you’re just starting to work on?

I have a new novella in Ellen Datlow’s anthology of film horror, Final Cuts. Oh, and my fifth collection, whose tentative title is Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, is currently under submission. More news to follow, I hope.

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Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He also contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, Hellnotes, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com.