Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: S.P. Miskowski

Three-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee S.P. Miskowski was raised in Decatur, Georgia, but later moved to the Pacific Northwest. After receiving an M.F.A. from the University of Washington and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she seemed poised for a career as a writer of mainstream fiction (she cites Flannery O’Connor as an early influence), but instead found her way into the horror genre. She debuted with Knock Knock, the first of a series of books set in the fictional town of Skillute.

Since then, she has provided acclaimed short fiction for such anthologies as Haunted Nights, The Madness of Doctor Caligari, October Dreams 2, Autumn Cthulhu, Looming Low, and Cassilda’s Song. In the latter half of 2017, she published her first collection, Strange is the Night, and a new novel, I Wish I Was Like You, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly for both. She and her husband, game writer and novelist Cory Herndon, recently moved to Canada.

While still at college, you edited a small-press magazine. How did that evolve your own writing?

This was a tiny magazine I edited and published quarterly with a friend for about four years. But the slush pile was astounding. At the height of the magazine’s popularity we received about a hundred stories each month. Reading fiction from writers all over the country—all over the world—gave me a new sense of what was out there. I was able to perceive the writing world beyond my own efforts and the efforts of my classmates. Reading the slush pile as an editor sharpened my preferences. After a while I developed an awareness of what I craved as a reader, and what I was tired of seeing. I applied this to my own stories—what was necessary, and what I could reasonably expect a reader to assume. I came to trust the reader to make certain leaps, fill in gaps in an imaginative way without being led and told everything all the time.

Many horror readers first became aware of your work with Knock Knock, a ghost story that’s the first installment in your Skillute Cycle (Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd, Astoria, and In the Light). Even though the fictional town of Skillute is located in the Pacific Northwest, these books have a Southern Gothic edge. What defines Southern Gothic for you?

Southern Gothic has a sinister undercurrent. The combination of places which are broken down or falling down, or informed by shameful history, and people who somehow still make their way despite the growing detritus and redundancy, there’s a sense of unease and inevitable collapse. I think of this as a thin line between the material world and whatever life force propels individuals. Southern Gothic focuses on this line, and you get a powerful understanding of what drives people, so there’s both a social and psychological awareness—and this might be stated or it might be presented ironically through juxtaposition and understatement. I think I’ve applied this way of seeing a community, and the forces shaping people in that community, to the Skillute Cycle. Each character is a unique person, but no one escapes the influence of the community’s history. And if the history is brutal and horrific, this comes out in some form in every individual.

In an older interview you said, “The Skillute Cycle (Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd, Astoria, and In the Light) was a challenge to write. Throughout the project I felt slightly out of my element, creating a town with a complex history and mythology.” What about that made you feel out of your element? What special challenges did creating a fictitious town’s history bring?

Well, when people who haven’t lived in the south try to imagine it, they think largely in terms of rural settings. In fact there are complex, thriving, urban areas of the south. My parents were not happy living on the farms where they grew up. They wanted out. They dreamed of cities and opportunities. We lived in an old, slightly rundown part of Decatur, Georgia. The houses there were fixer-uppers, with broken windows and ceilings lying in pieces on the floor. My dad made our house livable; he practically built it. There was a feeling of reaching upward, to more freedom of choice and more prosperity.

We visited my grandparents and aunts and uncles on weekends and holidays. My real life was just outside of Atlanta, and this rural landscape we visited was exotic to me as a child. My country relatives considered me a city kid. This had as much to do with my being the first generation to go to racially integrated schools, as it had to do with where we lived. We were quite different in our views, and at a certain point—probably near the beginning of middle school—I rejected that rural southern world. It wasn’t feeding my soul. It seemed to me an ancient and self-degrading society, and I broke away.

So, when I decided to write a book set in a fairly isolated location, I had to dig deep to recall what that isolation felt like. And to admit how deeply it could alter a person’s point of view, I had to recall some negative things about my family. Because the Skillute Cycle is, in part, about these limited perspectives and how people who feel they can’t escape them create a worldview to explicate those limitations. It’s about digging one’s heels in and self-justifying, which is something we all do. But in an isolated place like Skillute, defining self as part of the landscape fits right in with the ghosts arising from the history of the town. The challenge was to imagine such ghosts, to fill in the blanks in the kind of place I had rejected earlier in my life.

There seems to be a growing amount of horror and weird fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle. Is a Pacific Northwest Gothic subgenre being birthed?

The Pacific Northwest has an eeriness I associate with cloud formations. You don’t get the wide, open sky of the desert or the plains, or the vast horizon of an ocean. Clouds form a weirdly low “ceiling” here, close and dark. There is this gray canopy most of the fall and winter, and even into the spring. More than the rain, this dark, low sky defines the place. It isn’t a very treacherous or difficult landscape. It’s more somber and moody. The people are quiet and self-reliant—because you never know when the bridge or the power or the ferry might shut down, and you need to be ready. Even in the city, you need to be ready to hunker down with candles and friends and someone who can play a musical instrument.

You’ve noted that many of your stories are about characters who rely on “the illusion of control.” Isn’t that almost a requirement for characters in a horror story? Are your characters just perhaps likelier to hang onto that illusion for longer?

I would say many of my characters are, in fact, vaguely aware of their shortcomings, and they fear being put to the test. They don’t necessarily admit a fear of loss of control, but there are signs of it everywhere in their lives, stray distress signals. And yes, this is something we find in horror fiction—the barely concealed fear of what is out there, the false bravado of the person ill-equipped to face what’s coming.

How do you see your work fitting into the “weird fiction” category?

My writing, for the most part, fits a category I would describe as fiction of unease or growing suspense and distress. I just finished reading the Joan Didion memoir Blue Nights, which is about the death of her daughter but also, in a greater sense, about the gradually accumulating unease as Didion slips from middle age into the next phase of life, a phase of strange losses—people, places, strength, language—and a new knowledge of mortality as a certainty, a physical reality replacing the mere anxiety and anticipation of middle age. Suddenly she fears the moment when she must stand up after sitting for a long time in a folding chair. This simple act, and the possibility that she will fail at it, consumes her thoughts.

As a college student I was enamored of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Not so much the stream-of-consciousness style but all that it implied—this space between the world in which we act and speak, and our innermost impulses and responses to things we never discuss. This is what Didion was trying to get at in her memoir. I’m still fascinated with the amount of ourselves we keep buried, and in most of my work I try to locate these buried layers of existence. This is probably what (at least partially) defines my work as “weird fiction.”

In 2013 you did an “H-Word” editorial for Nightmare, “In Search of Horrible Women,” in which you said this: “We don’t accept women as complete and fallible. People who are infallible or unassailable can’t be real. How can they demand rights? How can they insist on taking charge of their own bodies and actions?” If women in fiction can be presented as fallible, then can fiction affect real social change?

It can, but (I think) only by chance. While I believe what Ian McEwan says about fiction building empathy, I don’t think a writer has absolute control over how and where and when any of her ideas will be received. And certainly not over how those ideas will be interpreted. One of my favorite episodes of the old series The Day the Universe Changed demonstrated how the same social and scientific concepts of an era fed into vastly different political movements. You may design a really great story promoting social justice, but it may be read in a context you didn’t anticipate.

More reliable is the writer’s personal worldview, if it plays out in the work at a subconscious level. For example, as a teenage fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, I took to heart his admonition not to create disposable characters. His opinion was that throwaway or minor characters in fiction underscored our tendency to think of some real people as minor characters. That idea is fundamental to everything I write. You won’t hear one of my characters making a plea for compassion and justice but you will get a sense that every character comes from somewhere and is on his or her own journey, however small a part they may play in the story as a whole. Everyone has significance, if not in this story then somewhere else.

In an earlier interview, you talked about your affection for Asian horror cinema and said that the Japanese films “Ringu and Ju-on changed my life as a storyteller.” How, exactly?

Since I don’t hold any specific beliefs regarding an afterlife, I could never quite understand the purpose of a ghost lingering in time and space. But I’d written quite a few stories about revenge—usually petty revenge on a small scale, awful little acts perpetrated by people who feel unrecognized or cast aside. This is one of my obsessions. I can only recall committing one such act, and it was painfully small and inconsequential, but I’ve always wondered how someone justifies doing real harm. I was raised to think seriously about the possible consequences of careless actions, and it’s always astonishing to me when someone lashes out without thinking. Even more shocking is a step-by-step plan for vengeance. The angry spirits portrayed in my favorite Japanese horror films opened up the possibility of a subliminal connection between the living and the dead, a craving for violent expression that can cross material boundaries. It opened my imagination to the idea of the ghost as an expression of the same energy that allows someone to harm another person.

You’ve provided work for a number of themed anthologies. How do you transform an existing theme into an S.P. Miskowski story?

Usually I do a lot of research and reading to prepare, especially if I’m unfamiliar or only slightly familiar with the theme. Joe Pulver has invited me to submit stories to a number of anthologies whose theme I found intriguing and understood fairly well, but not as well as I wished. So I did the research. For The Madness of Dr. Caligari, for example, I watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quite a few times, first paying very close attention and then letting the film play while I checked in and out, viewing casually. I read essays about it, and about the culture of the Weimar Republic. Then I set all of it aside and tried to forget about it. My original intention, to build a story in the time and place where the film was produced, gave way quickly to what interested me most about the film—the nested narratives and the deeply unreliable narrator whose sanity keeps wavering.

My story, “Somnambule” developed organically from the crossbreeding of these elements with my childhood memory of a woman who was abused by her husband. There was such urgency in the tales she told my mother, and at the same time there was something else wrong with what she said. She wasn’t telling the whole story, and I always wondered what was going on around the edges of the violence that played such a big part in her life.

To answer your question, I prepare and prepare, and then I let what I’ve read work on my imagination and my experiences without judging or forcing how the theme plays out—at least until I have a first draft and can start looking at the story more objectively and structurally.

[Full disclosure: I recently co-edited with Ellen Datlow the anthology Haunted Nights, which includes S.P.’s story “We’re Never Inviting Amber Again”] I’ve read “We’re Never Inviting Amber Again” probably almost ten times (including a couple of very slightly different drafts), and one of the things that fascinates me about the story is that it’s nearly impossible to define what makes it so creepy—it’s like a magic trick that I can’t quite figure out. With something like that story, how do you build that beneath-the-surface dread in—do you start with a situation and then work on the emotional context, or the other way around?

Thanks very much. That means a lot from a storyteller of your talent and accomplishments. I appreciate it. And I’m not absolutely sure, but I think this is an effect that comes from making lots of notes that are not used overtly in the story. When a story is finished, I probably have almost an equal amount of material “left over” in my notebooks. I know more about the characters and their lives and relationships than I spell out explicitly. And I suspect these “secrets” break through the surface of the narrative from time to time, giving it (I hope) depth and ballast.

You’ve recently received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly for both the collection Strange is the Night and your novel I Wish I Was Like You. The review for the collection referred to you as a “rising star.” Did that feel strange, given how long you’ve been writing?

It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s a long life when you begin telling stories as a toddler and go on writing stories through school, college, graduate school, and beyond. It seems like a long time, but there are several segments to it. I wrote stories and poems as a child and as a student. I was on a traditional path, with a collection and a novel and a respected agent in New York, when I threw it aside to study and work in theatre. For about fifteen years I only wrote plays—no stories at all. I had an MFA. I had day jobs as a teacher and then as an editor. Most of my plays were produced by brave artistic directors at little fringe companies in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to work with very talented people, but I grew more and more frustrated with the writing itself. I didn’t like what I was doing. And it was around 2010 that I came back to short stories, this time with those Japanese films informing my imagination, and with a powerful sense that I needed to work hard to catch up. I could never get back to where I was when I took that detour into theatre, but I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how deep I could go. Not commercially, per se, but in terms of my ability to tell a story that mattered to the reader.

Near the beginning of I Wish I Was Like You, the protagonist (Greta) tells us that she “wasn’t even a huge Nirvana fan,” and yet the novel’s title seems to be a nod to a line from the Nirvana song “All Apologies.” Did that lyric just happen to fit the novel too perfectly, or is there a little intentional clue to Greta’s character there?

It occurred to me early on that the swagger with which I wanted to endow the character’s voice could not be the swagger of, say, Philip Marlowe. His experiences were not hers; his voice was not hers. I’ve read detective and crime novel pastiches that employ the rhythms of the world-weary private eye, and some of them don’t work because they’re placed in a different universe. I knew my character came from a dreary suburban background and I wanted her to have a voice and outlook equivalent to that of Marlowe, but not an imitation. I aimed for this downbeat, slightly depressed teen attitude. And like most of us as teens, she denies a lot of things that are perfectly obvious. It creates an ironic tension because she’s aware but she isn’t always correct. This song is her song whether she admits it or not. “I wish I was like you—easily amused.” She’s a wise-ass. She rejects so much of the world and yet she longs to be part of it, and this longing continues to drive her even after death.

One of my favorite lines in I Wish I Was Like You is, “No wonder suburban kids crave violence.” Has that always been true?

Yes. I’m going to commit to this and say yes. I think the more boredom you make kids deal with, the more trouble you’re asking for, and the suburbs are nothing if not boring. They lack the cultural stimulation of the city and the possibility of physical adventure in the country. This isn’t a new view. Look at the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Read the stories of John Cheever. The main problem is, you move to the suburbs to get away from something, and that thing is life. You seek a calmer setting, a place where you can sit down and breathe and relax. Well, that’s why I moved to the suburbs, anyway. But I’m middle-aged. It isn’t a dreamy place for teenagers. No matter how busy they are, they can still find time to blow things up and set things on fire and generally act out—because they’re experiencing the frenzy of youth in the most boring place imaginable. Yes. I’ll stick with that.

While reading I Wish I Was Like You, you describe Greta’s murder right up front (this is not a spoiler!), but she examines her own corpse as she drinks and smokes. In fact, that wasn’t the only time in the book that I wondered if she was actually dead. Did you intend to have your readers thinking that?

My intention was to make the knife-edge between life and death as sharp as possible. I wanted her to behave quite naturally. It should all be nonchalant, with a sort of hardening into the situation as she goes along. She doesn’t know what she can do until she does it. Especially in those early moments of figuring out what the hell is going on. Believe me, if I’m wrong about an afterlife and I come back, the first thing I’m going to do is take up smoking again.

I love Lee Todd Butcher, the failed crime novelist within the novel. Was he based on anyone in particular?

He started out as a composite of three writers I’ve known. Then, one day, he got up off the sofa and went out for a drink. Lee Todd is his own guy.

Lee Todd describes the motive for writing thusly: “The thing about fiction . . . and I don’t care what genre we’re talking, whether it’s mainstream, or sci-fi, or porn, to be convincing you’ve got to feel the urge to write it, right down in your gut.” Is this a macho washed-up mystery writer talking, or do you share that view?

My view is more generous than his. If someone tells me he wants to write a book, I say, “Write it.” Try your hand at writing. You’ll work hard or you won’t and the work will turn out to be interesting or it won’t. You’ll stick with it or you won’t. None of these things are of any consequence in the grand scheme of things. This is where Lee Todd and I agree. Writing is not the end of the universe unless it’s your universe and you love it. You may find out that you have the engine that keeps going and creates fiction. Or you’ll get sick of the process and try some other field of endeavor. That’s fine. I don’t believe everyone can write fiction, but I don’t believe it’s my job to decide who writes it and who doesn’t. Lee Todd feels a desire to tell people bluntly whether or not they’ve got the right stuff. I tend to be wary of self-appointed gatekeepers while admitting that they may be partially right.

You once suggested that the increased sadism and violence in the horror films of the early 2000s was due to more awareness of real-life horrors like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. What horror is coming out of the current state of the country?

Yes, I think I said the growing fascination with torture expressed a collective need to understand what our leaders were doing in our name, and why. The madness and inexplicability of it demanded exploration through our most popular forms of “entertainment.” Today’s era is about paranoia. It’s about lies and whisper campaigns, racism, casual violence, and ignoring the suffering of other people. This will undoubtedly feed into the horror genre with more films like Green Room and Get Out. There’s a strong social undercurrent to even the most intimate horror originating in the U.S. I expect this will be the case for years to come. Having a real-life monster at the helm makes horror the predominant genre of our time.

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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.