LYNDA E. RUCKER: DREAM REALISM
Lynda E. Rucker is a master of the short weird horror story. Her work has appeared in zillions of magazines and anthologies, including plenty of Year’s Best, and is assembled in her two collections: THE MOON WILL LOOK STRANGE and YOU’LL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE. This past year, her story “The Dying Season” from the anthology AICKMAN’S HEIRS won the Shirley Jackson award, which made me whoop with joy, because it is KILLER. Lynda also writes a regular column on horror in BLACK STATIC MAGAZINE.
I love her overall style and the way she has with putting her realistically drawn characters into dream-like scenarios that elicit some serious creepiness and awe. Do yourself a favor and read her stories “The Old Roads” (available for free on the Burrow Press website) and “The House on Cobb Street” (hosted freely at Nightmare Magazine), and then devour her books. THE MOON WILL LOOK STRANGE is just full of great stuff, including the title story, “The Burned House”,”No More A-Roving” and “The Last Reel”. To find out more about her, check out her website.
Lynda was kind enough to answer some questions, for which I am very grateful…
Can you remember the first book or story (or whatever) that you read that piqued your interest in horror/weird fiction?
LR: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t attracted to Gothic imagery, but there were a few key stories I read between the ages of six and eight. One, “The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage, was in an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology I found lying around the house. The other two were from an anthology I had called Shudders—W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Second Night Out” by Frank Belknap Long. Thanks to those stories, I spent many a sleepless night absolutely terrified of and waiting for, respectively, a wax figure who would either slit my throat or cause me to die of fright, a shambling undead thing fresh from the cemetery that would come banging at the front door, and an evil monkey that would appear in the corner of my bedroom. Around the same time, I also read the more age-appropriate John Bellairs—The House With a Clock in its Walls and The Figure in the Shadows, which I also loved despite the fact that they, too, frightened me half to death, the second one in particular.
Before that, though, my mother read me The Wizard of Oz when I was five, a chapter a night, and my love of the fantastic certainly has its roots in that.
My mother is also the other horror fan in the family, so by the time I was eleven or twelve I’d started reading Stephen King, as she had all his books. After that I found writers like Ramsey Campbell and Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman, but King was sort of the gateway drug to grown-up contemporary horror for most of us of a certain age.
How have your tastes in literature, both genre and non-genre, changed over time?
The types of fiction I like to read have not changed a lot throughout my life—I like horror, of course, but also crime and mystery fiction, mainstream stuff, science fiction, classics—but I have grown a lot pickier over the years. I don’t need for everything I read to be stylistically dazzling, but I do need for the prose to be solid and well written. In genre and other popular fiction, this can be surprisingly hard to find (except see my caveat in the next paragraph about horror these days). I’m fussy enough that I often find myself at odds with other people’s fiction recommendations!
I go in and out of periods of reading a lot of horror fiction and then none at all for long stretches. Lately, I’ve been reading lots because there is just so much out there that’s extraordinary. I think it’s extremely important for writers to read widely, and to read outside of the genre—I would even say most of their reading should be outside of the genre—and I actually feel a bit bad because I’ve been indulging in mostly genre stuff for a while now. But it’s because we really do have an embarrassment of riches to choose from these days. For example, included in my to-read pile at the moment are John Langan’s The Fisherman, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, and Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney—what a lineup!
Having grown up in the American South, spent years as an adult in the rainy Northwest, and lived several years in Ireland, I am wondering: what has each of those places brought to your writing?
Like a lot of people do, I fled the South screaming as soon as I finished college, but within a decade I was terribly homesick for it. The South is my home in a deep, primal way that bypasses whatever disagreements I have with the dominant political and religious climate. I feel very powerfully connected to the landscape—literally; I grew up in the woods in Georgia, and when I go back I feel like rolling around in the soil like an animal. The smells and the sounds—all of that is so palpable to me, almost magical. Beyond that, a lot of what I’d say here about being a horror writer from the South I covered in my essay for Nightmare on the topic. But whatever else I am, I am first and foremost a Southern writer, a Georgia writer, and will be until the day I die.
(I’m very happy, though, to have been claimed by some in the British horror scene as one of them. I’ve always felt more connected to the British horror scene than the American one—not least of which is because I literally couldn’t give a story away to an American editor for well over a dozen years!—although over the last several years, a wave of horror writers has emerged in the U.S. that I do feel a philosophical and aesthetic kinship to.)
Other places, Oregon and Ireland included, have shaped me as an adult although I’m not quite sure how that ties in directly to my writing except to the degree that any life experience does. I’m deeply attached to landscape and setting, and both places have provided me with stories that take advantage of that. I’ve also lived or spent time in other countries, and I think living in a lot of different places can help strip away some of your assumptions about people in general, which is valuable for a writer, but certainly not necessary—there are plenty of writers who never go anywhere and have a profound insight into human nature. I think living in and visiting different places is something that’s valuable to me personally as a writer because I’m interested in writing about different locales and setting, and I also like disorienting a character by placing them somewhere where they are an outsider.
Is there a way that stories mostly come to you (plot, character, setting, etc.), or is it varied, as far as what grabs you and gets you started?
Most stories start with a setting that has affected me so powerfully that I need to write about it, or with an image. But it varies. With one of the original stories in my new collection, “Who is This Who is Coming,” I was standing in the old cemetery at Happisborough, in East Anglia, UK—M.R. James country—and the character of Fern Blackwell came to me all at once, fully developed, with a name and a mission, and the story had a name as well, and of course, the setting had to be right there where I was standing. With a story I recently published on the Burrow Press website, the opening lines came to me while I was out running one day, along with the grandmother’s name.
I’ve always thought of your story “No More A-Roving” as a masterpiece. Did I read correctly that it was the third story you published?! How long had you been writing up to that point? (Also, if you care to mention anything about the genesis of that story, that would be great…).
Thank you! And yes, that was my third published story. I’ve written all my life, but by the time “No More A-Roving” was published, I’d been sending stuff out for publication (by which I also mean actually trying to write and finish stories with a beginning, middle, and an end as opposed to just angsty teenage poetry or half-finished scraps of things) for about…seven years? I can’t remember exactly when I wrote that story but it took a couple of years to place it.
As for the genesis of the story—I had spent a little time in the west of Ireland and found the landscape very powerfully affecting. At the same time, I wanted to write about people I had met while traveling. You meet some very odd, rootless, disconnected people staying in youth hostels. And the disconnectedness was especially pronounced in the pre-web or very early days of the web. Most of the people Paul meets in that story are people I met in real life staying in strange out-of-the way places like that.
I jumped for joy when I saw “The Dying Season” had won the Shirley Jackson Award–it is such a killer story. How on EARTH did you approach creating something in the spirit of Robert Aickman, when his style is almost impossible to describe?
Thank you! It helped a lot that in Simon Strantzas’s brief for the anthology, he emphasized that he wasn’t looking for Aickman pastiches but more our own individual takes on some aspect of Aickman. That said, Aickman has always been an influence on my writing, from before I ever started submitting fiction, so it wasn’t actually as much of a stretch for me as it might be. I feel a strong kinship with him, artistically speaking. However, I was more conscious of Aickman than I normally would be while writing “The Dying Season,” and I really tried to think about his preoccupations as well as my own.
Do you have any kind of unifying “theory” or philosophy of what you are trying to accomplish or convey with your work?
Hm. I’m not really sure, and I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a good idea for writers to answer questions like this. In a way, I think this is something best left to astute critics. And yet I’m going to answer this question anyway!
The primary idea driving my conception of horror is a sense of beauty and awe in touching the unknowable. I think an actual encounter with the numinous would not be at all like seeing some friendly angel but would be absolutely terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. In that sense, I really appreciate much of the underlying philosophy of Algernon Blackwood, sense of mysticism and awe and terror that is perhaps most purely expressed in “The Willows.”
I am also fascinated with the idea of what happens afterwards—that’s the focus of one of my favorite stories, M. John Harrison’s “The Great God Pan” and the novel that grew from it, also a favorite, The Course of the Heart, and was something I attempted to grapple with in my story “Where the Summer Dwells” as well. What on earth do you do with the rest of your life after you’ve had an encounter with the miraculous? I also love the idea of the numinous being something that is barely glimpsed all around us and not really comprehended at all. I love stories where people just get intimations of that world.
Beyond that, though, I am just very interested in human beings, in their relationships with one another especially, and with human nature in general.
I find your stories to have a strange friction in them, a lot of the time, between realistically portrayed characters/settings and a dream-like feel for story. This can be very pronounced, as in stories like “No More A-Roving” and “The Dying Season”, and even your more straight-ahead tales tend to bend that way (to me). Can you talk about that aspect of your writing?
I think in a way this is one thing I’m getting at in the previous question—I am fascinated by the intersection of cosmic horror and real human beings.
Gary Fry wrote an astute review of my first collection which began with the observation that I appear to be a writer as in love with mainstream literature as genre, and he got it absolutely right. I love mainstream literature, and I love well-developed, engaging characters. I want them to feel as real as possible, like they exist outside the borders of the story I’m telling.
I also like fiction that has a gritty realism to it—some admittedly disparate examples of some of my favorite writers who I think do this very well would be people like George Pelecanos, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates. I love horror fiction that is grounded in that same everyday. This was also the huge appeal for me of the British miserabilist horror writers I ran across in the 90s—short stories by Joel Lane, Conrad Williams, and Nicholas Royle were particularly inspiring to me, because they brought those gritty mainstream and genre elements together.
But I love genre too, of course! I once read an interview with Graham Joyce—another of my major influences—or perhaps it was something he said on a panel, to the effect that one of the strengths that genre literature has over, let’s call it mimetic fiction, is that it can use genre elements to intensify situations and emotions in a way is often more emotionally true to how those things feel than mimetic fiction is able to convey. Having said that, genre fiction is about more than just metaphor and allegory to me (and certainly was to Joyce as well) and I actually dislike films and fiction that take that disdainful approach–”oh, it’s got monsters in it but it’s not really about monsters, you know.” I find it both dull and reductionist. Rest assured that any ghosts or demons or monsters you find in my work might have metaphorical significance but they are also full-on evil entities in and of themselves because, well, that stuff is awesome.
So—the unknowable, set against a backdrop of realism and human psychology—that’s sort of what I’m aiming for.
I hate to even ask this question, because I am mostly a short story reader, but I’m sure others would like to know: Do you have a novel in the works, or a plan for one someday? If so, what are your thoughts on working in that space, as opposed to the concision of short stories?
Oh, yes! Honestly, I always had this conception of myself as a novelist. I started writing short stories because I had this idea that it was what you did first, like training wheels. By the time I realized that wasn’t necessarily the case, I was hooked on the form. Short stories have also been very good for me for the past few years because for various reasons, I haven’t been able to work in the sustained way that a novel requires.
I actually wrote one novel, years ago, which—long story short—got a good agent and made the rounds and got lots of noises about “great writing, no idea how we market this.” It’s now safely put away the trunk of writing that will never see the light of day. That was a painful learning experience but every writer has loads of sob stories just like it or much worse!
So anyway, yes, I am working on a novel right now, it should be finished next year, and I have lots of ideas for other novels. But I won’t give up writing short stories!
Who are some authors working in the horror/weird that you think really “get it right”?
Caitlin Kiernan says she’s not a horror writer, so I hope if she ever reads this she’ll forgive me, or at least let me classify her as a “weird” writer. I actually consider Kiernan to be the great living unsung writer of American letters. I can’t believe she hasn’t been picked up by a wider, mainstream audience. I’ve loved a lot of Liz Hand’s work for a long time, and her Wylding Hall, which came out last year from PS Publishing, is absolutely extraordinary—it brilliantly captures the kind of feeling I love to see weird fiction achieve. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve read Gemma Files’s Experimental Film and V.H. Leslie’s Bodies of Water and both were excellent.
Nathan Ballingrud is brilliant. Steve Duffy deserves wider recognition. I haven’t read Glenn Hirshberg’s most recent stuff yet (see: so much to read!) but I love his older work. I also want to mention that there’s a huge number of incredibly talented women writers who have come up in the past few years—I am going to name just a few, and I’ll forget some names here and leave others out that I just haven’t read, but here are some I’ve read stories by in recent years that have really impressed me: Priya Sharma, Cate Gardner, Thana Niveau, Georgina Bruce, V.H. Leslie, S.P. Miskowski, Maura McHugh, Laura Mauro, Helen Marshall, Damien Angelica Walters, Kristi DeMeester, Carole Johnstone. Not all of them exclusively write horror, but when they do go dark, they do it extraordinarily well. I should mention Nina Allan here too although she writes more SF. And there are so many others! The list of Shirley Jackson short story nominees I was on was exclusively women writers.
There are also fine writers who have been at it for decades who are still turning out excellent work—Steve Rasnic Tem, Lisa Tuttle, and Ramsey Campbell among them, all very important to my own development as a writer.
Paul Tremblay in the U.S. and Adam Nevill in the U.K. are knocking it out of the park with some heartening and well-deserved mainstream success, and I love the work of both of them.
That’s just a few. There are so many good writers in the field right now. that it’s impossible to read or name them all, and I never thought I would say that. I’ve been reading horror fiction my whole life and I truly believe we are in the golden age. All those years reading horror, I struggled to find quality stuff to read—now I can’t keep up. Reading the anthology Aickman’s Heirs was such a joy—I felt like I just kept turning pages and reading one terrific story after another. Pick up Black Static, Nightscript, Shadows and Tall Trees, any of the multiple year’s best volumes, or visit quality online magazines like Nightmare—you’ll be so impressed, and find some new writers to love.
Lastly, what do you have coming out next? Also, is there anything you are currently working on that you would like to mention?
I’ve always got a few short stories underway for various editors. I’m writing a novella, which has the working title of Flood, for Horrific Tales publishing—Gary McMahon wrote a terrific one for them that came out earlier this year, The Grieving Stones—mine won’t be out until late 2017. I’m writing a monograph on the film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death for the Dream Engine Press imprint of PS Publishing, also out sometime next year, and last but not at all least there’s the aforementioned novel which I hope you’ll all be able to read in a couple of years’ time!
A ton of thanks to Lynda E. Rucker!