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Interview: Lois H. Gresh

“Renaissance woman” is a phrase we really don’t hear enough, and fortunately, talking about Lois H. Gresh gives us a perfect way to put it to use. Since her first short story (“Cafebabe,” from the science fiction anthology Infinite Loop) was published in 1993, she has written psychological horror, Lovecraftian fiction, weird fiction, thrillers, young adult novels, mystery tales, pop culture science books, and companion books to popular young adult series. As an editor, she has produced two acclaimed anthologies (Dark Fusions and Innsmouth Nightmares, both published by PS Publishing), and her own short fiction has been collected in Eldritch Evolutions (Chaosium) and Cult of the Dead and Other Weird and Lovecraftian Tales (Hippocampus Press). In addition to being a New York Times-bestselling author, she has appeared as a Guest of Honor at both science conferences and genre conventions. Her most recent books are the three volumes in her Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu trilogy: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions, The Adventure of the Neural Psychoses, and The Adventure of the Innsmouth Mutations (all published by Titan Books).

As a child, you wanted to pursue a career in science (as a geneticist or biochemist). Was there a “eureka” moment when you realized you really wanted to be a writer?

As soon as I learned to read, I started writing my own stories. I loved the rhythm of words, and for fun, played around with the dictionary and thesaurus. Writing enabled me to escape into worlds of my own making and to express how I felt. By age six, I was writing weird science fiction stories.

Looking back, it’s interesting that—knowing nothing about craft—I wrote from a third-person tight point of view, developed my main characters, and created suspense plots with what I hoped were surprise endings. Along with the science-based stories, I also wrote eerie, moody stories set in swamps, forests, and fogs. I liked the interplays of light and dark, clarity and mist.

So there was no “eureka” moment. It was as if I was born with no choice, and I was going to write stories around everything else I had to do in life.

If anything, I often fought the urge to write, telling myself that I’d be much better off focusing on my other obsession, science. By age thirteen, I dreamed of doing genetics research related to cancer. Everything micro fascinated me. Chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, neuroscience, genetics.

When I was twelve, my father, who had been a milk truck driver, lost his job and never worked again. He suffered from a series of strokes and heart attacks. My mother went to work as a secretary to support the family. We were not well off, and while my parents thought my older brother had to attend college (because he was a guy, and would someday have to support a family, they told me), they did not see the need for a girl to do anything other than marry and have children. They were kind people, but rooted in old-fashioned ways.

Seeing no future, I graduated from high school a year early and got a job writing bi-weekly medical newsletters for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Instead of eating, I spent what little money I made on night college, and two years into a degree in microbiology-chemistry, I switched to computer science for practical reasons. The government wouldn’t pay for my classes, so I left for the corporate world, where I basically worked as a programmer-analyst and manager of writing departments while attending night college for ten years.

Talk about a writing obsession. I wrote stories during my night college classes. For example, I wrote “Algorithms and Nasal Structures” (Aboriginal SF, Summer 1998) while sitting in a graduate-level computer science class called Algorithms and Data Structures. During this period, my story production really picked up, and by my mid-twenties, I’d cranked out two practice novels totaling a thousand pages. Quite often, my professors ended up in my stories in some twisted fashion.

You started publishing short fiction in 1993, and have noted that you were “the token female” on a Lovecraft panel at the World Fantasy Convention in 1996. What was it like being one of the first women to be acknowledged for producing Lovecraftian fiction?

I was often the only woman on Lovecraft panels, but I didn’t really think about it much. In the early years, I wrote what I wanted, and if it was considered Lovecraftian in nature—or “weird fiction”—so be it. I should point out that Lovecraftian fiction is a subset of the weird genre. One can write an original weird story without using Lovecraftian characters, settings, etc.

Most of my stories are original weird SF stories and weird science thrillers, some are dark fantasy, some are mysteries hinged on science crimes, and a few are psychological horror thrillers.

My first Lovecraftian-specific story, “Mandelbrot Moldrot,” appeared in DAW’s 1996 Miskatonic University anthology. With a mathematics-science angle, the story is playful and strange, written in my own style and voice, and with characters of my own making.

After the publication of “Mandelbrot Moldrot,” the organizers of the 1996 World Fantasy Convention asked me to be on a Lovecraft panel. I didn’t think about the fact that I was one of the first women to be acknowledged for producing weird fiction. I was much more concerned about melting into a protoplasmic puddle in front of a large audience. Now, one of my favorite venues is DragonCon, which draws approximately 60,000 people, so my definition of “large audience” has changed over the years.

When you edited the anthology Innsmouth Nightmares, several of the stories featured female protagonists. Is the use of women in mythos fiction something that you see as a progression from the beginnings of the subgenre?

Thankfully, we’re now starting to see the field expand, not only into female points of view, but also into the use of other minorities as protagonists. It’s about time.

I started writing weird SF as a child because I wanted to read stories featuring female protagonists, and I couldn’t find anything. I grew up on a diet of my father’s classic hard SF novels and my mother’s thrillers. The women in the classic SF novels were cardboard characters who served coffee and spooned nutrient broth over blobs in fish tanks, and the thriller heroes were always men.

Modern weird fiction, including the mythos subgenre, must expand to include viewpoints beyond the classic stereotypes. If it doesn’t expand, it will die.

Innsmouth Nightmares is incredibly strong. A lot of the stories are some of the best I’ve read in the field. New twists, new perspectives, and yes, stories with female points of view.

In general, weird fiction has blossomed into a more literary realm. It’s a beautiful field for experimentation, not only in terms of style and structure, but also for exploring concepts such as pain, suffering, kindness, fear, empathy (or lack of it), greed, arrogance, etc., and one of my favorites, the anthropomorphic absurdities we cast on the world around us.

The anthology Dark Fusions was originally supposed to be published by the late, great Arkham House before they stopped production. Was it a dream to be published by Lovecraft’s main publisher?

Yes, it would have been a dream to be published by Arkham House. I had two contracts with Arkham House before they ceased production. One was for an original novel, and the other was for an anthology.

You’ve stated that “the most important elements of good writing are the triad of character, plot, and theme.” Where does style come in?

Style, voice, tone, etc., are all components of a good story, whether at short or novel length. At Contradiction (later EerieCon) in Niagara Falls/Buffalo, the organizers ran a panel every year, in which they read brief passages from our fiction, and we had to guess the author behind each selection. We were all familiar with each other’s work, and certainly with our own voices and styles. Yet it was tricky, and hilarious fun—especially with guests of honor. For example, take Larry Niven. Could he identify a sentence from his 1970 Ringworld? Could the rest of us identify it? Or regular attendee Hal Clement (one of my father’s favorites)—could he identify a snippet from his 1953 Iceworld or from “Proof,” first published in the June 1943 Astounding?

Short stories are great platforms for stylistic maneuvers and experiments. If writing “pop” novels, literary embellishments are a little harder to pull off, though the writer can play via carefully placed brushstrokes. Voice is always important. We can discuss style, voice, tone, and other aspects of craft at length, so I’m speaking in very general terms here.

You extended Lovecraft’s themes into the Old West with your story “Showdown at Red Hook,” and of course you’ve placed them in Victorian England with your Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu series. Is there a setting for Lovecraftian fiction that you haven’t explored yet and still hope to?

I prefer to write stories that have new twists, suspense, mysteries set in universes of my own making. While a lot of my work is weird SF or weird science thrillers, most of my stories have nothing to do with the Lovecraftian mythos. Rather, they are set in universes that I create and populate with my own characters, and I write exclusively in my own style and voice. So I’m not sitting around, wondering where to set a Lovecraft story. That wouldn’t be any fun.

In 2001-2, you wrote a young adult trilogy (the Chuck Farris books) with your ten-year-old son. What was that like?

Chuck Farris is an action-adventure fantasy series featuring a teenager, who continually has to save his home town and his mother from all sorts of catastrophes created by cracks between the real world and video game worlds. My son, Dan, was ten when we wrote Dragonball Z together, and he was twelve when we wrote the Chuck Farris trilogy. I wrote all of the books specifically to do something fun with him.

During the 2000s (after the Chuck Farris series), you mainly wrote (with Robert Weinberg) a series of books exploring the science of popular media shows and series (beginning with The Science of Superheroes in 2002). How did you get started writing those? How did the partnership with Robert Weinberg on those books play out?

Bob bought a bunch of my stories via his slush pile, and I attended my first World Horror Convention because he wanted to find out who was behind the stories. When I appeared at the 1994 New Orleans WHC, it was the first time I met other writers and realized that I wasn’t alone. I’d always worked in isolation, sitting in a closet, off in my own worlds. Now, I was surrounded by other people, who also worked in isolation, often in closets, and always in their own worlds.

By 1996, I’d sold a bunch of weird science stories to various magazines and anthologies. Bob knew about my technical background, and asked me to co-author a technothriller with him. I balked, insisting that I wanted to write original weird science thrillers. Over the course of six months, he finally convinced me to shift gears and work on a technothriller. Within a few days after I sent him the proposal and partial of The Termination Node, Bob sold the project to Random House/Ballantine/Del Rey. We then wrote the book together as equal partners.

Circa 1999, Bertelsmann bought Random House and folded Ballantine into Bantam—just when Ballantine/Del Rey published The Termination Node as its lead Christmas-season hardcover novel. I still have the full-page ad that Ballantine planned to run in the New York Times, along with our five-city book tour announcement. Although The Termination Node debuted as a USA Today Bestselling Thriller, Bob and I were crushed by the merger. Ballantine lost out to Bantam, and poof!

Our agent at the time suggested that we write The Computers of Star Trek for HarperCollins/Basic Books. So our first “Science of” title was actually The Computers of Star Trek in 2000.

After Star Trek, Bob and I came up with the “Science of” series concept and title, and we switched to John Wiley & Sons, Inc., co-authoring The Science of Superheroes (2002), The Science of Supervillains (2004), The Science of Anime (2005, Running Press), The Science of James Bond (2006), The Science of Stephen King (2007), and The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones (2008). When Turner Publishing bought Wiley, our editor left—in publishing lingo, our “Science of” series was orphaned.

While co-authoring the “Science of” series, I was also writing the St. Martin’s Press “Companion Guides” series, which contained a lot of speculative science, as well.

Over the years, various publishers and film/TV producers have expressed great interest in the “Science of” series. Bob and I sold book options to film/TV many times, and I’ve received multiple offers to continue the “Science of” series with new books. I remain open to the idea—that is, as long as the deals are reasonable.

What was more fun to write: The Science of Superheroes or The Science of Supervillains?

Supervillains. Dr. Doom. Brainiac. The Vulture. Poison Ivy. Doctor Octopus. The Lizard. Venom. Grodd the Evil Super-Gorilla, Magneto, Vandal Savage and Apocalypse, The Silver Surfer, Sinestro, and others. I get giddy just thinking about Supervillains.

Along with reading classic SF, thrillers, and comic books, I watched a lot of pulpy movies with my father. He and I were two of a kind. We both loved Tarzan, Hercules, Conan, Godzilla, King Kong, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Fly, Captain Kirk and classic Star Trek, etc.: anything pulpy, weird, or with strange science.

I learned as a little kid that you can’t have a great superhero without a great supervillain. It’s tremendous fun to get inside the heads of Grodd the Evil Super-Gorilla and Doc Ock. What makes them tick? Even pure evil has its motivations.

Although I prefer Supervillains, The Science of Superheroes was the first of its kind, and hence, very special. Bob and I were the first writers to delve into whether: (1) Superman’s strength could really exist, (2) the Hulk could really transform from a wimp into a big green muscleman, (3) Batman’s tools could exist, (4) Aquaman and Sub-Mariner could really breathe underwater, (5) Spider-Man could possess Spider powers, (6) the Flash could run faster than the speed of light, and lots more. One chapter focuses on Green Lantern and black holes; another on Ant Man and The Atom: is it possible for men to shrink into miniature size?

For a decade, I was on TV and radio shows at least a few times every month, talking about both the “Science of” and “Companion Guides” series. I quickly learned that my readers are highly intelligent people with wide-ranging and very detailed knowledge about science, technology, comic books, and/or genre fiction. People asked me questions such as: If someone is paralyzed, can he manipulate machines or move objects using just his brain waves? Is time travel possible using the common fictional and movie methods of warp speeds and black holes/tunnels? Is it possible to move faster than the speed of light; why or why not? Are there parallel universes or multiverses? Can we use genetics technology to create babies with specific physical and mental attributes? How might we clone people? Could someone actually clone Hitler, or say, Einstein; and if so, how? Is genetically modified food safe to eat; and if so, why? Can we stop the aging process, can we live forever—how?

I remember being on a “live call-in” Dublin radio show when a guy asked me to explain the science of a 1949 Donald Duck comic. I remember when Estonia sold a bajillion copies of The Science of James Bond, and I considered doing a book signing there. With white powder all over my face, stuck under hot bright lights, and controlling the urge to bat swarms of fruit flies off my head, I remember speculating about the inner workings of Batmobiles and the invisible Bond car for the History Channel. I froze on park benches (with my teeth chattering) in December while answering speculative science questions for three Canadian cable TV channels. I’ll never forget the Perugia Science Festival, where I was a guest of honor. Or my after-dinner talk about “Comic Book Science Bloopers” at the International Conference on Coherence and Quantum Optics.

The one gig I regret turning down was the Food Channel’s Supervillains cake show. The gig conflicted with my honeymoon. I asked my husband if I could leave our honeymoon for a couple of days for filming, but he wasn’t up for it.

You’ve written in two genres—horror fiction and nonfiction speculative science books—that, in the past, weren’t typically associated with women. Did that ever make any special difficulties or advantages for you?

I’ve always followed my own instincts and my own paths. It’s not wise to dwell on obstacles. It makes more sense to focus on what you want to do and what you’re capable of doing.

Beginning in 2004, you wrote “Companion Guides” to nearly every one of the most successful young adult series, including Twilight, The Hunger Games, and the Divergent series. Have you ever been tempted to put all that knowledge of how YA series work into your own series?

Sure, but sometimes life intervenes. I suffered from a serious back injury in 2008, the year I hit the New York Times Bestsellers List for the first time. The injury left me unable to move, and the recovery was lengthy. I’d had two back surgeries in my twenties, leaving me incapable of walking for a year each time. The third time around was a killer, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I was able to walk again. After recovering, I wanted to write weird science thrillers, so for the most part, that’s what I’ve been doing.

You produced very little fiction—even short stories—from 2003-2008. Were the “Science of” and “Companion Guides” series simply too work-intensive to allow you to consider your own fiction?

The “Science of” and “Companion Guides” series were a lot of fun to write. Yet I was dying to write novels and short stories. It was like a bad itch. I did write fiction during that period, just not as much or at the level that I craved.

How did you decide to tell the Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu series mainly from the first-person point of view of Dr. Watson?

Arthur Conan Doyle had Dr. Watson “transcribe” all of Holmes’s adventures for the leading magazines of the day. I decided to follow suit and conform to the canon. However, splitting viewpoints among multiple characters enables me to better dramatize murders, mysteries, and overall dread. So all of my books are told from multiple points of view. For example, Moriarty’s point of view is substantial, and in the third novel, I even toss in a few chapters from Cthulhu’s point of view.

As for Watson, I deepen his character, get more tightly inside his thoughts, and soften him by adding his wife Mary and an infant son, Samuel. I explore his attachment to and respect for Holmes, the allure of scientific discovery, and how difficult it is for Watson to be a family man and medical doctor while craving the excitement offered by Holmes.

The Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu novels are all weird science thrillers. Throughout the series, Holmes insists that what appears to be supernatural is based on hard fact, the cold reality of the universe and its properties.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions introduces Holmes and Watson to bizarre monsters and mysterious chemical reactions of other spacetime dimensions.

In Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Neural Psychoses, Holmes once again confronts science beyond the 1890s in the form of Eshocker machines. Dr. Reginald Sinclair of the Whitechapel Lunatic Asylum designs the Eshockers to treat his patients either in hospital mode or extreme treatment mode. Moriarty finds another way to use Sinclair’s Eshockers—to give electric jolts to the public in his nefarious dens. All three types of Eshockers could have existed—but didn’t exist in the real world—during Holmes’s time. I created the engineering schematics for the machines before I started writing the book. As the deadly dimensions dump more of the bizarre monsters into London, addiction, brain disease, and death sweep through the city, and even Watson falls prey to neural psychoses.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Innsmouth Mutations brings Cthulhu—as well as Dagon at Devil Reef—on stage in full force. Once I place Holmes and Watson in Innsmouth, all hell breaks loose. The ultimate showdown occurs between Holmes and Cthulhu.

Speaking of, the third volume of Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu—The Adventure of the Innsmouth Mutations—has just been published by Titan Books. Will you continue this series, or are you looking forward to something else next?

I’m currently writing a thriller set in modern times. I might return to Sherlock Holmes, but for now, my mind is elsewhere, swinging back to the path set by The Termination Node. My aim is the same as always: immerse myself in the story, have fun, and take my readers along for the ride.

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.