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Interview: Nicole Cushing

Nicole Cushing is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of Mr. Suicide and a two-time nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award. Rue Morgue recently included her in its list of thirteen Wicked Women to Watch, praising her as “an intense and uncompromising literary voice.” She has also garnered praise from the late Jack Ketchum, Thomas Ligotti, and Poppy Z. Brite. Her second novel, A Sick Gray Laugh, was recently released by Word Horde. A stand-alone novella, The Half-Freaks (published by Grimscribe Press), also appeared in 2019.

Nicole teaches horror writing classes on Patreon and has previously taught workshops at conventions and in college settings. She lives in Indiana.

First off, let me start by congratulating you on a tremendous 2019. It saw the release of a new novella, The Half-Freaks, as well as your second novel, A Sick Gray Laugh. How does it feel to see them out there in the world? Given that these both push the envelope in terms of making you, as the author, a central part of the (meta)fiction, did you have any worries about how they would be received?

I did worry. Mr. Suicide was a successful first novel, and I think success can actually haunt a writer as they move along to the next project. At least, it haunted me. I asked myself if the second novel could measure up to the first. I was afraid the new approach would alienate readers.

But eventually I realized I only had one job: to write the very best novel I could. A writer has no control over how their work will be received so why dwell on it (especially during the writing process)? All you can do is pour your heart, mind, and soul into the book. You rewrite what has to be rewritten. You revise what has to be revised. You proofread like hell and accept the help of beta readers and copy editors. You polish it, and polish it, and polish it some more, and then let it loose with the understanding that some people will love it and some people will hate it.

So, I feel relieved that both books are now out in the wild. They took a long time to write. It was rewarding to finally unveil them.

For our readers who aren’t already familiar with your work, what do you think is an ideal starting point? I realize this may be a little difficult, since one of the most impressive things about your oeuvre is how it continues to change, but is there a particular work that you think captures a sort of thematic interest and authorial tenor that runs through your work?

In my opinion, A Sick Gray Laugh is my best book. Also, it’s a full-length novel. So, of course, I’d like for readers to start there. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. However, I’m also very proud of my new novella The Half-Freaks, and the consensus seems to be that it displays more of the transgressive side of my fiction; the side that characterized much of my earlier work.

While I want to get into your specific works in a little, this seems like the time to ask: In your recent novel, A Sick Gray Laugh, the narrator is one “Noelle Cashman”—an Indiana-based writer of dark novels who seems to share more than a few characteristics with you. Cashman (the character) describes her authorial brand as “Miss Foulness”—writing books for the giggling, grimacing outcasts. How close do you see this as your actual brand versus an exaggeration?

There’s a lot of playfulness writhing through the soul of A Sick Gray Laugh. I take the truth and distort it ever-so-slightly so that it emerges as a half-grotesque joke (or as a half-joking monstrosity). Noelle’s reflections on her career were written in that spirit. So, there is some truth in those descriptions, but they’re not intended to be taken too seriously.

When looking back over your bibliography, it seems like you started off with short stories, but that you’ve been mostly focused on novellas and novels over the past few years. Is that a fair assessment, or is that selectivity bias on my part? What do you find about working in those longer formats that differs from the shorter ones?

You’re right. For the past several years, I have been focusing on novels and novellas. I made the switch for a couple of reasons. Mainly, I wasn’t having fun with short stories any more. I’d done just about everything I wanted to do with that form. I grew restless, and decided to tackle something else.

I find novels to be a challenge, and I find challenges exciting. I also believe novels can deliver a more nuanced and complicated emotional experience to the reader.

There are a number of recurring themes in your work—the concept of degeneracy; plastic/artificial versions of reality; the separation of solve versus the unification of coagula; a desire for unbeing that is never quite achieved. What is it like to work with these over and over? Does your understanding of these themes change as you revisit them, or have they remained relatively fixed?

I don’t consciously set out to address these themes in each book. I believe they’re subconscious obsessions. Revisiting them over and over is a bit like having a series of recurring dreams. I’m not in control of when they pop up.

I think my understanding of them can’t help but change, if only slightly, from book to book. Part of that is simply a consequence of aging. With each passing year, I’ll notice a new facet to an old obsession. And eventually, I’ll record that observation in my fiction. Current events keep things fresh, too.

Your first full novel, Mr. Suicide (2015), strikes me as a sort of inflection point—all of its elements are presaged elsewhere in your prior or near contemporary work, but this is where they really take a turn into something uniquely your own. Just for example, in The Sadist’s Bible (2016), the repeated mantra is “the arc of the universe is long but bends towards degeneracy,” but in Mr. Suicide, degeneracy is just the first step on the Three-Fold Path (Degeneracy, then Plastic Vision, then Unbeing). In Children of No One (2013), the nihilistic god-power the “Great Dark Mouth” first appears, but as an abstract, almost typically evil bugaboo—but in Mr. Suicide, the same energy is both more personalized (it speaks to the protagonist) and more philosophically charged, offering the existentially disruptive gift of unbeing. Even the technical daring of the second person POV was used in your short story “The Mirrors” (2014), but whereas that story’s protagonist is relatively “normal,” Mr. Suicide warps the “you” into reader complicity with a potentially unsympathetic, as well as mentally ill, protagonist. What was Mr. Suicide to you? How did it come about, and did it change how you approached writing, or what you chose to write about afterwards?

Mr. Suicide was an attempt to express the heartache of adolescent alienation. In that sense, it was my take on The Catcher in the Rye. It was also an attempt to depict the pain of someone falling apart, and the estrangement a person could feel even from themselves. In that sense, it was my take on Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. It was my attempt to depict the impulse toward self-erasure and the capacity toward self-sabotage. In that sense, it was my take on Poe’s “The Black Cat,” and his concept of “the imp of the perverse.” It was also an attempt to depict a working class family riddled with trauma and mental illness. In that sense, it was my take on my upbringing.

I got a lot of stuff out of my system with Mr. Suicide. For example, I don’t know if I really have much more to say about adolescence. For a while afterward, I thought I might be able to similarly move on from the subject of mental illness and (as Noelle Cashman says at the beginning of A Sick Gray Laugh) focus on “the world outside my window” instead.

That last part, of course, didn’t happen. Mental illness was a subject I still had to explore.

In 2015, both Mr. Suicide and your short fiction collection The Mirrors were nominated for Bram Stoker awards, but it was Mr. Suicide that won the Stoker for Best First Novel. What was that like? Did it give you a boost for moving further down those lines? Was there any sense of hesitancy that came with the attention, given that you write about some pretty transgressive and personal elements?

In June of 2015, about a month before the release of Mr. Suicide, I experienced a terrible bout of anxiety and depression. I was absolutely tormented by (mostly unrealistic) fears about how readers would react to its transgressive elements. However, by the time the book was nominated for the Stoker, I had gotten past all that. Some people hated the book, but more people loved it.

Also, the nomination (and eventual win) didn’t just cast a spotlight on my work, it offered some measure of validation.

That validation meant a great deal to me. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was thirty-five, and Mr. Suicide was published shortly after my forty-second birthday. I spent a long time fighting tooth and nail in the trenches, accruing rejections and ego bruises. So when recognition finally came, I welcomed it.

I still welcome it. Publishing isn’t a level playing field. The conglomerates based in New York have the resources to more or less buy attention for their books. Everyone else has to scrap for any piece of attention they can get. Awards are one of the few ways a small press writer can come to be recognized by the larger horror readership.

Shifting gears, I wanted to talk about your influences if we could. One thing I appreciate about the acknowledgments in your books is that you reveal a fascinating mix of influences. For example, while Thomas Ligotti’s influence in certain anti-natalist ideas is no surprise, finding out that Mr. Suicide is indebted to Edgar Allan Poe or that A Sick Gray Laugh was influenced by Milan Kundera and Witold Gombrowicz might be unexpected. What sort of mixture of genre and non-genre influences do you see in your own work? How do they blend together, either stylistically or thematically?

I think my influences have shifted over time. While I will always maintain deep respect and admiration for Thomas Ligotti and Edgar Allan Poe, I think it’s important to keep finding new teachers. I’ve never wanted to be considered a strictly Ligottian writer, because I don’t want to be trapped in the amber of any other writer’s imagination. Ligotti’s worldview and aesthetic will always, in a sense, be my home, because that’s where I started out. But part of being an adult is leaving home and building a life of your own.

So right now, I’m more interested in learning from folks like Kundera and Gombrowicz. Kundera, especially, is a master of literary counterpoint. His “polyphonic” novels (in which subplots and themes weave in and out of each other like a harmony) take my breath away. He’s able to make a page weep and giggle and sigh, all at the same time. His work was a revelation, and it provided a stylistic model for A Sick Gray Laugh.

Gombrowicz is a bit more chaotically playful than Kundera, and I find his work to be infused with a greater measure of nightmare energy. It provided the thematic influence for my recent work.

It’s evident that you’re a voracious and attentive reader; case in point being your series of YouTube book reviews, “Cushing’s Bookshelf.” You also offer instruction in live settings and via your Patreon. While it would be unrealistic to think these don’t have some influence on your writing, I’m curious as to whether you see these analytical pursuits as an active part of your process in developing as a writer, or if you view the critical exercises as separate? Do you turn that lens on your own work, or do you learn by osmosis?

Honestly, I do both. I think every writer subconsciously absorbs lessons from what they read. So, a certain amount of learning by osmosis is bound to happen. That said, I do look at my own work with a critical eye. I’m not afraid to gut my manuscript if I realize it’s not working. I’m conscious of the tools at my disposal. I have a sense of what I need to do to maximize the effects I want to maximize.

Elsewhere, you’ve discussed a sort of self-challenge where you read 500 stories in 500 nights. What sort of effect did that have on you? Be honest—did you ever hit a point of diminishing returns?

First, I should give credit where credit is due. The “500 stories in 500 nights” is a watered-down version of a challenge issued by Ray Bradbury. He once said that every new writer should read one story each night, one poem each night, and one essay each night, for a thousand nights. So, by Bradbury’s standards, I was a slacker!

Nonetheless, I learned quite a bit during that year and a half. In retrospect, I think that’s when my work really started to turn a corner.

The challenge forced me to diversify my reading diet. After a while, I got bored of reading contemporary horror stories. So, I went back and read older horror stories. Eventually, I got bored of those. So, I started to read the darker end of literary fiction from Europe. I read work from Africa and Asia, too.

Did I hit a point of diminishing returns? Yes. That’s why I eventually stopped doing it. I wanted to move on to reading novels. But I still make a point of reading every day.

I’d like to move on to your two most recent works: 2019’s The Half-Freaks and A Sick Gray Laugh. Given the sort of vagaries of publishing timelines—the order in which things appear is not necessarily the order in which they were written—I’m hesitant to try to place your work on a strict continuum; however, I think it’s fair to say that these two works demonstrate a continuing trend of increased experimentation and authorial confidence. I see this especially in the willingness to blur the line between author and subject, but also in drawing more overtly on philosophical (rather than “magical”) themes, and trading horror-based degeneracy for nihilistic absurdity. Do you see this same trend, or is this my critical pareidolia trying to force a pattern? If you see this line, were these interests that you developed as time went on, or are these areas that you were always drawn to, but only became comfortable expressing in fiction later?

I’ve always had an interest in nihilistic absurdity. It pops up in some of my earliest short stories. However, the sociopolitical events of 2016 gave me a renewed interest in it. Reality seemed to be melting all around me. I needed to express my reaction to that.

2016 was also the year I first read Kundera. My husband had always extolled the virtues of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I found his old paperback edition somewhere around the house I gave it a try. In 2017, by sheer dumb luck, I stumbled upon the Gombrowicz novel Pornografia in a used bookstore. That was the same year I read the historical survey Utopian Communities in America: 1680-1880 (another find from a used book store). Many of the communities discussed were founded by bizarre ideologues who were totally unprepared for the wilderness. Hence, another tie to absurdity!

I don’t think the trend toward nihilistic absurdity came about by my own volition. I was just reacting to the world, and to the books I noticed by happenstance. If I had browsed through a different bookstore, I might have written a different novel.

What is it about horror that you think makes it a particularly suitable vessel for your exploration of these themes that you work through? Primarily here, I’m thinking of these ideas of degeneracy, the lure of the void, and the nature of the artist, but also any others that you see.

Horror fiction, at its best, evokes a sense of unreality and a sense of unease. It also evokes a sense of grandeur that is (paradoxically) fueled by foulness.

Horror’s home field is the id; that thoroughly disreputable but devilishly honest part of the psyche. Therefore, I find it an ideal vessel to use while exploring the nightmarish and creative aspects of existence.

In terms of exploring the role of the author, A Sick Gray Laugh is an intriguing blend of different kinds of books—memoir, speculative history, horror—but its most immediately striking distinction is the narrator-cum-author of the text, Noelle Cashman. While Noelle seemingly has enough similarities to you (or at least your public persona) to come across like an author surrogate, the relationship is clearly not entirely autobiographical, but the big differences help to fuzz the boundaries of the (possible) little differences. What challenges and opportunities did you find in writing about and through Noelle? I’m curious if you worried that people would think Noelle was too much you, but also—conversely—if you also worried that people wouldn’t think that she was you enough?

Noelle wasn’t in the earliest drafts of the novel. For a long time, I envisioned the book as nothing more or less than the history of Naumpton, Indiana. But then I realized that wouldn’t do. I needed to tell the story of someone obsessed with the town’s history. Someone who saw a connection between Naumpton’s past and their own future.

But who?

That’s when the mischievous idea bloomed in my head! I would be the one obsessed with the history of Naumpton. Or, at least, a distorted version of me. If possible, I like to have fun while I’m writing. Noelle Cashman seemed like a fun protagonist. I knew that readers would wonder if the book was more or less autobiographical, but I also knew that—no matter how they answered that question—they’d probably second guess themselves.

One of the novel’s themes is the ambiguity of identity. We see that in The New Moses, in the sea captain who reports a mystically-induced facial deformity, in Noelle wearing her balaclava as she runs outside in winter, and in the strange matryoshka robot near the end of the novel. So why not add to the ambiguity by playing with metafiction?

Another of the novel’s themes is the corrosion of reality. Yet another theme is artifice. So, again, the use of metafiction made sense.

Shifting to The Half-Freaks, that novella also uses an overt authorial intrusion, although there it is the “I” of the author writing the character’s story, i.e. the “real” you, Nicole Cushing. What’s fascinating here, though, is that even though the “I” in it is ostensibly Nicole Cushing, as far as we readers know, that’s just as much an artifice as the “I” that is Noelle Cashman. Did you have a different reaction to writing in first-person of “Nicole Cushing” as opposed to as the first-person of “Noelle Cashman”?

Writing in the first person voice as Nicole Cushing in The Half-Freaks was a much more straightforward experience. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few dashes of artifice around the edges. But, for the most part, the Nicole Cushing character in The Half-Freaks is really me. Her relationship with her troublesome character, Harry Meyers, is very similar to my own relationship with him.

Speaking of those, although A Sick Gray Laugh was published before The Half-Freaks, could you tell us which was written first? Because they both have key elements of the authorial intrusion, do you see one as the progression of the other, or are they variations on a theme?

I wish I could give you a clean, linear answer to this question. However, it’s a bit complicated.

The character of Harry Meyers came to me in late 2014. I wrote about sixty thousand words about him, but ultimately ended up tossing them out because they weren’t working. I then started to write about Naumpton, Indiana. I imagined that Harry lived there.

But then I realized that wasn’t working either. So, I put Harry to the side (in “time out,” as it were) and decided to use Noelle Cashman in the book, instead. Finally, the gears started to mesh! The machinery worked. I’d found my solution.

So, after I submitted A Sick Gray Laugh to Word Horde in November of 2018, I decided to return to Harry Meyers. For a while, I still wasn’t sure how to use him. And yet, in my imagination, he kept insisting to be used. He wouldn’t let me alone! So, I decided to try metafiction again. This time, I wasn’t being mischievous. I was being more direct, and documenting my experience of dealing with a character who was both abhorrent and pitiful.

I can’t say which use of metafiction is more successful. I’m not sure if such a comparison is even possible, because they use metafiction in different ways.

Also, as a true aside, in the acknowledgements to A Sick Gray Laugh, you mention that it, for a while, existed with a “working title that didn’t quite work.” Could you share that with us?

For a while, the working title was Industrial Nightmare. My friend Allen Griffin convinced me that it sounded too much like “a compilation of early Nine Inch Nails-style bands.” He was, of course, correct. So I went with A Sick Gray Laugh (a title inspired, in part, by Leonid Andreyev’s The Red Laugh).

Going back to the techniques you deployed, what were your influences in these author-surrogate techniques? Where, if anywhere, would you place this in relation to your other works’ earlier focus on an exterior “plastic” world—i.e., the unreal, artificial nature of reality. Are the “I” of The Half-Freaks and Noelle Cashman of A Sick Gray Laugh plastic consciousnesses?

Kundera was a pretty significant influence, in this regard. He often includes passages that break the fourth wall. It’s part of the polyphonic harmony of his books. He juxtaposes these metafictional essays against passages of traditional narrative. There’s a sort of Venn diagram overlap in the emotional content of both (which creates the sense of harmony).

Gombrowicz also plays around with an author-surrogate character at the beginning of his masterpiece, Ferdydurke. So, he was an influence as well.

You raise an interesting question: are my metafictional surrogates plastic consciousnesses? (And what a concept: plastic consciousnesses!) Let’s take them one case at a time:

Noelle Cashman initially came about as a result of my need for mischief and playfulness. I liked the idea of identity anarchy, but I didn’t immediately connect “identity anarchy” to the idea of a plastic world.

However, it’s clear that her identity melts and gets re-sculpted over the course of the book. Also, she develops an idea for how to melt and re-sculpt the identity of others (through bizarre kidnapping scenarios involving “reincarnation”). So I think it’s fair to say that, in that particular case, the use of an author-surrogate reinforces the theme of an unstable, artificial, and hideously mutable world.

I’m not sure I can say the same thing about the character Nicole Cushing, in The Half-Freaks, because her identity doesn’t really change that much over time.

Similarly, A Sick Gray Laugh blends actual historical utopian and millenarian movements with fictional cults to create a historical text of Naumpton, Indiana and the Grayness that clots over it, which is as much real as it is unreal. Does the insertion of these false elements make a plastic history out of real history? What relation do you see here in this part of the novel?

This is a difficult question. I don’t believe I made a conscious choice to emphasize the plasticity of history. However, there are scenes in the book that describe such a process. One example: a statue of The New Moses presents an incorrect likeness.

Another example: the victims of Naumpton’s early twentieth century Spanish Flu epidemic are buried in a mass grave. After several decades, a convenience store is built overtop the bodies.

Its owner misunderstands the identities of the corpses. He puts a plaque up in his store, honoring “All of Naumpton’s Sons Lost in World War I, Who Lie in Solemn Repose Near This Location.”

But none of the corpses belong to war veterans. Naumpton sent no young men to the war. The town knows about the error, but decides to leave the plaque uncorrected. Some of the townsfolk come to prefer the lie to the truth, and so they embrace it. For those Naumptonians, war casualties convey some measure of honor to the town. Flu victims, not so much.

Leaving aside the authorial boundary blurring, there’s another seeming trend in your more recent work. When I compare the kind of gruesome sadism in Children of No One or The Sadist’s Bible to the sky-is-falling climax of The Half-Freaks or the “fun run” of A Sick Gray Laugh, it seems like the more recent work has a brazen lean into the humorous, playful aspect of the absurd. All of these are objectively deranged, but—to borrow A Sick Gray Laugh’s terminology—where your older work possessed “Nightmare” energy, your recent work is also suffused with “Cartoon” energy. That “ Cartoon Nightmare” charge seemed to start emerging in Mr. Suicide, where the protagonist’s Gift of Plastic Vision renders everyone in terms of actual cartoon characters for a while, but those earlier works lack the humor that now accompanies your invocations of the grotesque. Is this shift something that you see, as well? Where does that come from, and what difference do you think it makes?

Children of No One, Mr. Suicide, and The Sadist’s Bible were all written before I started Zoloft for depression and OCD. Also, they were written during a period when my husband and I attended too many funerals and visited too many hospital rooms. Everything in my life was grim, and my fiction reflected that.

By the time I made headway with A Sick Gray Laugh and The Half-Freaks, my mental health and personal life had stabilized. I believe that played a role in the resurgence of humor in my fiction. In any event, the humor just spontaneously arose. I didn’t consciously set out to make the books funny. In fact, I was a bit leery of allowing them to go in that direction, because I had built up a certain reputation for mirthless pessimism. Fortunately, most of my readers seem to be taking just fine to the new, improved, more mirthfully pessimistic Cushing.

By the way, when I say “Cartoon Nightmare” energy, I get flashes of Tex Avery or Ren & Stimpy. What does it draw up for you?

I think I’ve used it differently in different books.

But, just now, the image that flashed into my head wasn’t that of a cartoon at all. I saw, instead, scenes from the colorful live action films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. They’re wonderful works of art. I do love them. However, his characters haven’t many layers. They have no individuality. They’re archetypes and/or caricatures. They take on the characteristics of their surroundings. Jodorowsky is an elaborate world-builder. That’s his strength. His settings dominate his characters.

To me, that’s the horror of “cartoon energy.” The devolution of actual people (in this case, Jodorowsky actors) into avatars and caricatures. The devolution of the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional, literally or figuratively. It strikes me as nightmarish, to take a human being (with all their contradictions, all their complexity) and reduce them into something childish, simplistic, or symbolic.

While I wanted to end by saying that your work is fascinating, one recurring motif is how your characters use the terms “fascinating” or “interesting” almost as if they were curses. Here, I mean as true curses—words that mark the bearer as someone apart or different, destined for ruin. I’m curious what you see as the power of those words? Do they have a positive or negative charge in the worldview of your work?

When I was writing Mr. Suicide, I researched the etymology of the word “fascinating” before I used it. Allegedly, it dates back to the late sixteenth century, when it was used as a synonym for “bewitching.” So my use of the word was intentional. I liked how its present use is deceptively ordinary, while its past use had been connected to the occult.

Now, for the word “interesting.” A popular urban legend states that there is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Perhaps that was on my mind, when I put the word in my characters’ mouths.

Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to your concrete plans, are there any new and still inchoate works or ideas that you’d like to develop?

There are a lot of things going on at my Patreon (patreon.com/nicolecushing) . As you mentioned, I’m teaching horror writing classes there. Also, every Monday through Friday, I post a short writing advice essay.

I’m also working on a new fiction project. I’m just seven thousand words into it. I’m not sure if it will be a novel or a novella. It’s set in a hospital.

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.