Leah Thomas, currently a student at Michigan State University, attended the iconic Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2010 and is a new writer who just made her first fiction sale earlier this year. She’s definitely one of the talents from the upcoming generation of fantastical writers that you’ll want to be on the look-out for over the next decade.
Since we also knew that Thomas had art talent, we thought it might be interesting and entertaining to send 750,000 words of The Weird compendium her way, covering 100 years of weird fiction, to get her visual take on “Reading The Weird.” Established and iconic writers are often asked to list their weird favorites or comment on The Weird in other ways, but you rarely see anything about the reaction of writers coming up through the ranks. We were interested to see what a relatively new writer who had not necessarily encountered many of these stories before might emphasize, enjoy, and absorb from the book.
The result, of course, is the projected 12-episode “Reading the Weird” webcomic that debuted on WFR last week, in which Thomas has gone a step further. Instead of simply reaction to stories, she’s created a whole frame involving one of the characters from “Axolotl,” a story included in the book. You can check out the webcomic here.
Below you’ll find the utterly fascinating interview we conducted with Thomas about The Weird, creating the webcomic, and growing up with weird fiction. You’ll find some sneak peeks at future episodes interwoven into the interview, too! – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Weirdfictionreview.com: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what childhood books do you remember reading that were definitely more of the weird variety?
Leah Thomas: Is there any family that isn’t weird? My parents are both full-time social workers, so “weird” doesn’t really exist for them anymore. In any case, I am grateful that they raised me on a steady stream of strange.
My siblings and I were raised to love the macabre. At my house, Halloween merited more decorations than Christmas. We made fake dead people and stuck them in the yard. My mom really got into the spirit of it – never were we princesses for Halloween, unless we were zombie princesses. If you asked kindergarten me what my favorite album was, I would have said “Let Love in” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (My goodness – I had no idea what fearsome lyrics I was singing about on the playground.)
As for books – Roald Dahl was on all the shelves, of course (and if you don’t think Dahl is weird then reread The Witches), alongside fantasy from Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen and the like; I don’t deny that I had every Animorphs book that ever came out. My mother kept me supplied with necessary classics to temper it–Little Women, Peter Pan and Pippy Longstocking. But if we’re talking weird reading during childhood, I have to bring up a selection of short stories written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One story is about a girl whose cheek bursts open to reveal tiny arachnids after a spider lays an egg in her. Another is about an adopted “puppy” that turns out to be overgrown sewer rat. These stories were frightening for all ages, but they have nothing on the accompanying illustrations – Stephen Gammell’s pictures, to this day, remain the most haunting and disturbing pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Buy the books and stare at them. If you’re in a well-lit space. And the doors are locked. And you have a blunt instrument near at hand, just in case.
WFR: Can you give us an idea of what kind or kinds of fiction you write? Do you see any common elements in your own work?
Leah Thomas: I write very character-oriented stories – I love close friendships and the interactions between siblings and families. For a long time I was hung up on YA fiction, but I think I’ve wandered away from that slightly as I’ve gotten a bit older. If you were to ask a dear friend of mine what I write about most often, she would probably say, “Adorable crippled orphans and dead people who are still alive-ish and feisty women with accents.” It does seem like I’m hung up a bit on the undead, whatever that signifies (I always did adore Tim Burton growing up). Some of my more recent drafts include a story about a boy in 1940s Dresden trying to bring his kitten back to life, a story about a couple who paid for their college degrees by selling their body parts (to the extent where they’re scarcely more than walking skeletons who argue about renting cochleas during breakfast), a story about an island where the deceased wash ashore with the high tide, and a humorous take on dustbowl zombies. I love to write but lately college (curse you, for I cannot pay tuition with my organs!) has been getting in the way a bit.
WFR: What was your idea of The Weird before reading the anthology? And how did it change after encountering stories in The Weird compendium?
Leah Thomas: In a word? Tentacles…Well, not exactly. Some of the best weird fiction I’d read at that point had been from friends and fellow writers from the Clarion Workshop. Karin Tidbeck and John Chu truly wrote some of the most delightfully strange stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
But The Weird really helped me define the genre. So many great authors I was already familiar were bizarre on occasion – from Bradbury and Philip K. Dick (my father’s favorite author), to Kafka and Murakami. Neil Gaiman has been one of my favorite authors ever since I picked up Coraline in junior high and devoured Sandman during high school, so it was lovely to see him included. But what I love most about weird tales is how they seem to happen by accident – like the authors slip into a peculiar mindset only on occasion, and that odd mindset produces writing that delivers a ticklish uneasiness. I doubt that very few people who intentionally sit down and try to write something “weird and wonderful” actually succeed in doing so.
WFR: What in particular stuck with you about the stories you read?
Leah Thomas: Oh man. I remember reading them all and almost feeling overwhelmed by the powerful disquiet I felt. It’s akin to queasiness, but it isn’t unpleasant. Every single tale in that mighty tome has elements that somehow upset standard thinking – in each story, some reliable element we come to expect in stories is present but weirdly askew.
WFR: Any favorites?
Leah Thomas: Like I said, plot is secondary to characters for me. You’ll be able to see from forthcoming comics that my favorite stories in the book involve weird people specifically. Bradbury’s “The Crowd,” Wilbur Whately from “The Dunwich Horror.”the Officer in Kafka’s “Penal Colony.”
My favorite story as of this moment is the one for which I am currently illustrating – “It’s a Good Life, “ by Jerome Bixby. I am fascinated by Anthony’s character – he’s a child with godlike powers, and he abuses them. I love the glimpses into his reasoning that reveal that it is in part inherent childishness that makes him so nearly evil. I think all parents are a bit frightened of their children. It’s fascinating to me to see it demonstrated so drastically.
WFR: Were there common qualities or sympathies between any of the stories?
Leah Thomas: Hmm. Creatures from places “other” seem to hold heavy sway in the stories. “The Willows” and “The Tarn” struck me as having kinship because they both involve attributing sinister traits to nature.
WFR: Did any of them scare you?
Leah Thomas: “The Long Sheet” by William Sansom got me. I don’t know why. But something so ordinary – a wet bedsheet – becoming this awful antagonist was just so surreal. Can you imagine what it would be like – how raw your hands would become, how your nails would crack and break – if you had to wring out a wet cloth for eternity? That’s terrifying. My hands hurt when I contemplate it.
Also – “Sandkings.” My god, “Sandkings.” Absolutely terrifying, although I love insects. But insects with human faces? That aren’t actually insects? Oh goodness. So unsettling and wonderful.
WFR: Was there anything that was of use to you in terms of inspiring you as a writer?
Leah Thomas: Along with uneasiness, the sensation I experienced most while reading was something like awe – perhaps even envy. I can’t imagine ever writing something so effectively strange; these are coherent, well-told stories that convey an atmosphere that is almost impossible to capture. Every one of these tales deserves to be in this book – and none of them could have been easy to write, although some of them, like “A Woman Seldom Found” by William Sansom for example, may seem very simple. Honestly, they were only as inspiring as they were daunting. Weird fiction has a huge legacy. It’s astounding.
WFR: How did the idea for The Weird comic come to you, including the frame of having Mary and Ed go on a journey?
Leah Thomas: I’m not sure. Like I said, I really enjoy friendship interactions. I knew I wanted a dynamic duo of sorts. And I also knew that I wanted one of the two leads to be a weird creature. I was asked to “respond” to the fiction – and I couldn’t bring myself to do it as myself. So writing a story centered on two friends exploring – often quite literally – the book seemed a fun way to go about it. My problem now is that I want to write a response to every story. It’s not plausible. It would take years, I think, to do a proper job of it. Would that this laptop were a time-laptop, and I could stop time!
WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Leah Thomas: I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Sometimes I read books that try desperately to be strange and they end up seeming fabricated. So some of the most effectively weird stories are tales we don’t even think about anymore – take fairy tales. There’s a demented book of German stories for children called Struwwelpeter. Within Struwwelpeter is an infamous short work called “Der Daumenlutscher” – the thumbsucker. Here’s what happens: a boy sucks his thumb after his mother forbids him to do so and a mystical tailor with a massive pair of shining silver scissors appears from nowhere and proceeds to chop the boy’s thumbs off. “Don’t suck your thumbs, guys.” No big deal. The End. Now, any German could tell you this story. It’s as familiar to them as Johnny Appleseed is to us. I suppose what I’m saying is that weird tales surround us all the time, to the extent that they sometimes become mundane. They can be staring you straight in the face.
It’s eerie and it’s awesome and I wouldn’t want it any other way.