AN INTERVIEW WITH JAYAPRAKASH SATYAMURTHY
WEIRD TALES OF A BANGALOREAN by JAYAPRAKASH SATYAMURTHY is one of the best collections of truly weird, supernatural literature that I have read in years. In her forward, Anna Tambour comes right out and calls Satyamurthy the foremost writer of ghost stories currently working, and I think she may not be overstating things. This cat can WRITE, and it’s abundantly clear through his careful and incisive, yet colorful prose, that he is as much a scholar of speculative fiction as he is a practitioner. I am a sucker for well drawn, alive setting; for slow builds and ominous back channel mysteries; for characters that think as much as they feel; and for writers who love language, no matter what they happen to be writing. SCORE!
WEIRD TALES is a must-read (actually a must re-read, but first things first). Every story is creepy and interesting, and for such a slim volume I felt wrung out and sated by the end. I love all the stories, and feel that “All My Saints Are Down” should be the winner of some major international award, because I swear he writes an entire novel in just a few pages with that one.
Jayaprakash was kind enough to agree to an interview…
Having listened to your incredibly interesting interview on Scott Nicolay’s podcast, and having read your stories and some online writings, it is apparent you are not only a gifted writer of the weird/macabre, but also a student of the same. Can you remember the ur book(s) or story(ies) that got you going down this path?
JP: I think my first introduction to horror was an abridged edition of Poe that included “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask Of Amontillado”, as well as his mystery story, “The Gold Bug”. The eerie atmosphere and bizarre situations in the first three stories appealed to me immensely, and when I got hold of an unabridged edition of Poe, the rich elaborate style blew my little mind (I must have been less than 8, as my sister had not yet been born). Prior to that I’d read most of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, so I already had an interest in the fantastic, and of course there are so many scary and macabre things in those books. Arthur Conan Doyle’s horror stories were another early inspiration, and as an admirer of Poe his own stories had something of the same stylistic richness, and I came to associate horror fiction with prose style as much as content, something that was underscored by my discovery of Ray Bradbury, who straddled science fiction and horror. I discovered Stephen King in my early teens and I’d also started reading my father’s old paperback horror anthologies from the 70s, where I discovered a lot of great writers. Interestingly, I am a third-generation Ambrose Bierce admirer, as I have copies of his works from my grandfather’s collection, my father’s collection, and my own.
As you have grown older, what authors have meant the most to you?
HP Lovecraft was and is immensely important to me. In my 20s his works were a sort of hideaway for me, a paradoxically safe and comforting place where I could escape from my daily stresses and insecurities by reading of a vast, hostile cosmos. It put my problems in perspective. Thomas Ligotti was the next writer I became obsessed with – it was cosmic nihilism with a kind of philosophical intensity and stylistic bleakness that I found irresistable. At the same time the English ghost story tradition has meant a lot to me, especially J Sheridan Le Fanu and MR James. This in turn links up with my fascination for Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore (and later Iain Sinclair) and the way they use not just individual haunted places but whole cities as looming presences in their work. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities certainly played a role there, too. I love the richness of the Victorian novel – Dickens, of course, and the Brontes, and also Thomas Hardy, a surprisingly modern writer in many ways. Among Indian writers, RK Narayan showed me how English can be an Indian writer’s native language and Naiyer Masud and Vilas Sarang helped teach me to find the weird in my own city. Angela Carter, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin and Lafcadio Hearn have all been writers I have learned a lot from.
How long have you been writing, and how long have you been sending stories out to be published? What has the journey been like for you, so far?
I started writing fairly seriously in 2007, and sending stories out around 2009/2010. It’s been a fairly bumpy road, I think. I still haven’t cracked any of the really big (or middling) markets open to a writer in my genre. I also wasted some time trying to get published in India, where there isn’t really a specific market or audience for weird fiction. I would love to be published in India – I feel I have something valid to contribute to the literary conversation here, but my experiences over the last 7 years have not made me eager to try again just yet. On other hand, I’ve received the most amazing support from other writers and from the small press scene. I am very grateful to have a place to belong, as a writer, and peers and readers who are tuned in to what I do.
You are incredibly well-read, in lots of different genres (as are many of your characters). What non-horror books are important to you, as far as your development as a writer and a fan?
I suppose I alluded to some of them already. Outside of horror and weird, science fiction and mystery are my favourite genres. The Rediscovery Of Man by Cordwainer Smith is immensely important to me for the way it builds a kind of shared body of legend and history via individual short stories and for Smith’s stylistic strangeness and vitality. Le Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire opened my eyes to the romance of squalor, the palpable intensity of the urban landscape and the aesthetics of the dark and, I suppose, Gothic. Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories bring so many urban settings to precise, itemized detail, a bit like a noir version of Georges Perec’s amazing Life: A User’s Manual. Recently, the work of Robert Aickman has been exercising a growing fascination over me.
TALES feels like such a piece, with all of the stories and poems supporting each other and adding to the overall density of place and detail. Obviously, a few of them are directly linked (“Dancer of the Dying” flows right into “Song of the Eukarya”, for example). Was the collection written that way, or does it have a more disparate origin? What else do you care to mention about its genesis?
The earliest story in the collection is “Come Tomorrow”. I wrote it with the intention of weaving various bits of local folklore and ghost stories I’d been told by friends into a story. “Dancer Of The Dying”, which was partly a riff on “The Music Of Erich Zann”, seemed to build very naturally from some of the things in Come Tomorrow. I love cities, I love cities as characters in literature, I love Our Lady Of Darkness by Fritz Leiber, and I love Bangalore, so everything started building into a kind of Bangalore Mythos of my own. I have a few stories that I could not collect for this book that fit the Weird Bangalore cycle, and I hope to return to it some day and bring out a greatly expanded version of my first book. The title, of course, is a nod to MR James’ Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary.
“My Saints Are Down” blows my mind, and feels like a tongue-tip taste of a much larger story/mythos. I feel like it’s a perfect example of how inference of exposition is SO much more effective than explication. Do you have anything to say about the genesis of this story? Do you think we’ll ever see the Paper Eaters again in a future piece?
Virtually every damned thing in that story actually happened on my second visit to Goa. The weird man with the radio in the bus stop, the papier mache sculpture rotting in the alleyway, the derelict lady eating paper, just all of it. I think Santa Papel was a gift to me from the city of Panjim. I do want to write more about him and his cult someday.
There are so many modal qualities to horror/weird/supernatural literature: dread, tension, awe, creepiness, terror, etc., as well as sub genres: quiet, splatterpunk, Cosmic, grimdark, etc. How would you describe your overall aesthetic in these kinds of terms, AND what is your favorite to read nowadays?
What I really like to read in weird fiction today is a mix of quiet horror and something that has elements of folklore, modern or ancient, and a strong sense of setting, especially urban settings. The foklore doesn’t need to be ‘real’ – it can be created for the story. Laird Barron, Joe Pulver, John Langan, Livia Llewellyn, SP Miskowski, Scott Nicolay and Mike Griffin are some writers who are really exploring things that fascinate me. On the other hand, I am surprised, given my general lack of interest in gore and body horror, how much I like the work of John Claude Smith and Nicole Cushing, whose extreme horror always exists hand in hand with a thoughtful, philosophical sensibility. Jeffrey Thomas is the great secret master of the weird, I think. He can write anything. I don’t know where WH Pugmire fits in all this – decadent, Lovecraftian, romantic, gothic? But I love his work. Anna Tambour defies categories and writes some of the most delicious short stories ever. I love the sense of play and the wide literary influences Rhys Hughes evokes.
My own aesthetic, I think, is evolving. Things that are important to me are, a strong personal voice – I hate stories where the narrator or protagonist is just some dude, you know, a strong sense of setting, whether a specific city or place or something more amorphous and symbolic, as in my story “The Ouroboros Apocrypha”, for Lovecraft eZine, and of course an irruption of the numinous. Reality is ready to surprise you, and whether the surprises are pleasant or unwelcome, they are always gifts and my stories are attempts to invoke those gifts.
Horror as a genre has always been a bit of a stepchild as far as the literary mainstream goes. Do you think it has a valid place at the table as far as ‘Literature’ goes?
In a word, yes. If it is considered infra dig today, I’d blame that on the increased atomisation of the literary landscape. The great Victorian writers, notably Dickens, all wrote ghost stories from time to time. It was a mode you tried your hand at. Perhaps a minor form compared to the great social novel, but certainly not below notice. The literary mainstream today is so far from the uncanny, the profound, the original and the creative, it might be a compliment not to be accepted by it. I am referring mainly to mainstream Anglophone literature – Booker fodder. It’s not an exciting space. I think the 80s boom was part of the problem, though, relegating horror to a specific imagery and perception that it has not quite recovered from.
As far as horror’s place at the table, as long as it is a sincere exploration of our fears, or of the limits of our sense of reality, it absolutely belongs.
Aside from being a writer, you are also a musician (currently playing bass in the doom metal band Djinn and Miskatonic). Do you find that playing music has helped/changed your prose writing? Has the dark/nihilist aspect of metal, in particular, influenced your stories?
I think I play doom metal for the same reason I write weird fiction. I am drawn to the dark, obscure and mysterious shades of life, at least as an artist. Music does feature in my stories from time to time and I also think being a musician has influenced my prose. I try to write a paragraph like a movement of music and sometimes I use fugue, repetition and rhythm in my writing.
You and your wife run an animal shelter in your home, and are passionate in your defense of strays and abandoned cats and dogs. What is that like, on a day to day basis? I can’t help but think this has shown you both the best and worst of humanity in action…
You’re absolutely right, it brings us in contact with the peaks and abysses of human nature. It’s a source of emotional highs and lows as well – hope, love and joy as well as despair and grief. I suppose it keeps things real, in a way. It keeps me in touch with non-human sentience.
What are some things you wish weird/horror writers did MORE of, and what are some things you wish they did LESS of, in general?
The bad writers should either get better or stop doing anything at all, while the really good ones can pretty much take on any topic or trope and surprise you with the results (see my comments on JC Smith, Nicole Cushing and extreme horror above). I’d like to see more formal innovation in story structure and in metafictional devices, like in Mathew M Bartlett’s WXXT stories or Tom Breen’s Orford Parish Murder Houses.
What do you have coming out next? What are you currently working on, if it’s okay to ask?
Dunham’s Manor will be publishing my second chapbook, A Volume Of Sleep sometime soon. The MS is done and dusted, illustrations are being created by the amazing Dave Felton. I’m currently working on a new batch of stories and taking a long, hard look at a failed novella and trying to see if there is a novel a-borning somewhere in its carcass.
A HUGE THANKS to Jayaprakash Satyamurthy!