Stephen Graham Jones (1972) is an American writer of both stories and novels. His most recent books are It Came From Del Rio(2010) and The Ones That Got Away (2010). Jones has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and Black Quill Award, as well as a winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Asimov’s SF Magazine, Weird Tales, and multiple best-of-the-year compilations. The story by Jones that we selected for The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, “Little Lambs,” (2009) is a perfect example of Jones at his chilling and slightly experimental best, evoking as the story does both weird classics and more avant garde work from the likes of Mark Danielewski. You can find links to several of his short stories on his website, Demon Theory. I recently interviewed Jones about weird fiction via email…
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?
Stephen Graham Jones: It was welcome in the sense that every week at the grocery store in town my mom would buy an Enquirer, and sometimes a Weekly World News or Star if I could sneak it in, and, man, for that week, I would read those pages until they fell apart. They were my bible, they were my lifeline to what was real and true and forever. Which is to say: I didn’t know that most of it was made up, back then. I completely and absolutely believed in them, all the bigfoot love stories, the alien stuff—I still kind of believe the alien stuff—the JFK and Elvis and mummy stuff. It was so thrilling, it was a world I knew I was going to graduate up into someday, that it was going to be so much better than where I was. And, loving those like I did, whenever I went to the used bookstore with my grandmother, I would beg for all the Time-Life and Reader’s Digest books of ‘weird’ stuff. Strange Stories Amazing Facts? I bet I can still recite whole swaths of pages of that one. And I had the rest as well, all the series, and still have them, and still get kind of shaky when I read them, because I’m accessing the Truth, here. But this is all nonfiction. Talking fiction, talking weird fiction, Conan’s where it all starts for me. Well, no. There’s this one Louis L’Amour short story, very “Langoliers,” about stepping through a crack in the world and ending up at this dry creek bed forever, where all these other people live now. That story’s specifically why I always, unless I’ve only brought carry-on (and sometimes even then, if I can find a store), why I always carry a knife. Because, in that dry creek bed, what you have forever is what you brought across. So it better be good. But, Conan. I share a birthday with Robert E. Howard, but didn’t know that then, didn’t even know he wrote Conan. For me it was all Robert Jordan. I filled spirals with sketches of where I was going to carry my sword when I grew up. And, after Jordan, King and Barker. Wish I’d found Lansdale back then, but this was early eighties, he was just gearing up, wasn’t on my radar yet, wasn’t showing up on the used shelves, which were the only shelves. Actual and true weird fiction, though? Me finding my uncle’s tattered Lovecraft up in the attic kind of stuff? I wish. No, for me it was The Weekly World News. But I guess that was weird enough, finally.
WFR.com: Any weird writer or artist you’re particularly fond of you think gets overlooked?
Stephen Graham Jones: He’s hardly overlooked, but if Laird Barron’s not writing the Weird, then I don’t guess I know who is. And, it’s not content, so much—describe his work by content, and you pretty much get ‘horror’ –it’s the shape of his stories, how they kind of wyrm their way into the back of your brain, and spell it like that while they’re doing it, which is somehow worse, and better, and more permanent. And…how about Joyce Carol Oates? I mean, she’s in The Weird, everybody knows what she can and does do, but, the first of her stuff I ever read, it was way back in OMNI, this story “Thanksgiving.” One of the weirder things I’ve read, I think. It’s still very much with me, too. Ellen Datlow knows how to pick stories that don’t go away. So, after that, bam, I shot off to read the rest of Oates’ stuff, and, yeah, kind of came back with my tail between my legs. Evidently “Thanksgiving” isn’t what she usually does, just what she can do. When she turns those particular jets on, though, there’s not many can keep up. And, and: Brian Evenson. He’s hardly unknown either, of course—in The Weird as well, and everywhere else besides—and, unlike Oates, writing weird’s kind of his first impulse, his main vein, his natural inclination. Only you never get the sense he sits down to the keyboard thinking Man, how can I freak them out today? No, I picture him sitting down at the keyboard thinking All right, here’s another one, and then he starts all over again from scratch, trying to write his way through into some other place, and let us watch us over his shoulder. That’s the best way I can get at what he does.
WFR.com: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? If someone tells you something you’ve written is “weird” is it usually a compliment?
Stephen Graham Jones: Man, in grad school, I wrote this one pretty weird story, about a guy shooting holes in the world with his invisible gun, which was the only real response he had left, and I laid it down in workshop, everybody read it, and then, for the first time ever, not even one person had a single thing to say. When finally spurred, though, that was exactly the response: “This is thoroughly weird. Completely unlike anything else.” I don’t know—is that success, to silence your audience? I took it like that at the time, and maybe that’s good, as I kept on keeping on, still am. And, a cut-down version of that story, it just ran in The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction—which: bizarro. People often accuse it of being too weird, don’t they? Or, of being weird for weirdness’s sake, anyway, which is just another means of dismissing it. But I don’t take it that way. The people I know doing bizarro and doing it well—Carlton Mellick III, Cameron Pierce, Bradley Sands, Jeremy Robert Johnson—I often think they’re kind of tapping the same well as Lovecraft, just coming up with something a lot more intestiney and absurd, cartoonish and wonderful, serious and fun. So, yeah, if somebody tells me my stuff’s too weird, then what I hear in my head is that they’re not weird enough, I guess. And that, here, let me give you this story, then…
WFR.com: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and does it matter to you?
Stephen Graham Jones: I do see a difference, yeah. For me, what horror hopes to do is scare the reader, to instill dread or terror, to plant a seed of fear in them that they can’t shake. Which is very honorable. Those few times you zing your arrow past all the baffles and obstacles and get it right in the reader’s head, such that they leave the lights on at night? That’s what it’s all about You’ve changed them, you’re a part of them now, and, and: horror, I wonder if it’s one of those genres that’s functionally incomplete without closing the circuit, without getting a reader? I mean, if I write something, it’s not scary until it scares somebody, right? Anyway, horror’s dynamic, its intent, it’s similar to weird fiction’s, I think, but . . . I think what weird fiction tries to do, it’s unsettle you to some degree. But it also wants to make the world bigger than you ever thought it was, or could be. And, sure, Lovecraft’s the standard-bearer for all this, but it’s still happening, too. Just in less tentacly ways. And sometimes with tentacles intact.
WFR.com: Are there particular weird influences you care to point to in terms of your own work?
Stephen Graham Jones: I think that, instead of the usual roll call of weird works or authors I try to build on, my real influences for writing what I do, it’s probably literary writers. My knee-jerk title to answer this question, I mean, it was The Virgin Suicides. The book’s absolutely beautiful all by itself, but, reading it, I kept thinking What If? What if, instead of five girls, there were really four girls, and one of them was a visitor from another dimension, working its way into their memories and somehow spreading this ‘seed’ of suicide among them? Guess what I’m saying is that, in staid, boring, literary stuff, I often appreciate the characters, the structure, the prose, but I also see all these possibilities for improvement. That, with just one premise slightly skewed, this story could really take off, really disturb someone, really make the world not just deeper, but kind of sticky, too.
WFR.com: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Stephen Graham Jones: That somebody’s writing only about an idea, that they had a “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a face in the mirror and it stayed there after the house burned down?” kind of idea, but they forget (or neglect) that cool ideas only become cool when real and true characters bring them to life. So, give us the eleven-year-old girl who’s going to run away from home one night, not see this face right off but sense it, then find it in a reflection, and have it say to her exactly what she needs to hear, which we can only know if we know her, if she’s real, not just a cardboard cut-out, and then back off, let the girl go on her way, and shuffle backwards in time, until we see that girl all grown up three years before, setting fire to this particular house, and leave it at that, not explained in a connect-the-dots way but in an emotional sense. That’s what the reader connects with, always.
WFR.com: Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part for the writer to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yeah, you can get away with anything in the first line of the story—”Mark the cybernetic giraffe set his tea down and recommenced tinkering with the light drive, using just the fairy wrench this time, since it was already Moonday”—but pull something crazy off two-thirds of the way through and you’re a hack, right? I don’t know the trick exactly. I think it might have to do with atmosphere. That what you have to do is create a world in which this break into the weird is going to feel like the only logical culmination, one you (the reader) both dread and want at the same time. But then, while that sense of relief is washing over the reader, go a half-step further into true surprise. You might can get away with it exactly then, if nowhere else. But, this is managed poorly so often that weird fiction tends to get a bad rap. When it works, though, man. Nothing better.
WFR.com: Your story “Little Lambs,” reprinted in The Weird, struck us as original and weird in a lot of different ways. It’s got a starkness and understated quality but also a real emotional punch to it, and the supernatural situation is sublimely creepy. Do you remember the initial spark for the story?
Stephen Graham Jones: I think it was just that I was cold. And I thought to myself, Dude, this sucks. What if you were cold forever? And, instead of being truly scientific there, I lab-ratted a character up to be cold for me. And then there was nothing around him, so I asked myself what would be the least likely thing for him to be looking at? And there the story was, waiting for me like it had been there all along. And maybe it had been. I mean, I’d seen The Philadelphia Experiment fifty times, of course, and The Fly nearly as much, so the central kind of conceit of the story was planted in deep in this one, but also, this story was my first try to write into this idea I keep having, that moving through space, it’s more like Delany would have it in some of his stuff –it’s more like eating Spice, yeah? That you just need an improbability engine of sorts, except you’re born with that engine. That there really is a real world, and maybe it looks like Terrence McKenna told us it did. And that prisoner who’s at the bottom of the events of “Little Lamb” if not the story itself, he stumbled onto this. And now this cold dude, he’s having to deal with that. He’s Jodi Foster in Contact, only his pressures are more personal, less global. As they nearly always have to be. Also, these guys in this story, they get to grow beards. And I’ve always kind of envied beards. Not because I want one, but because I want to be able to cut one into a killer gunfighter mustache. Then get me a serape, a grim look about the eyes— well. Who doesn’t want that?
WFR.com: Did you write this story all in one sitting, or was it more difficult than that, and is what’s on the page now pretty much what you had in rough draft form or more stripped down?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yeah, all in one sitting, and completely unchanged from then. Maybe a typo-fix or two, I guess. The file name for it is “structure,” but I had the title just a page or two in. Little lambs is what these guys are. They need to come home. They can never come home. And, you know, saying it like that, I wonder if DeLillo’s old “Human Moments in World War 3” was at work in my head. That story really hit me once upon a time. Sooner or later I guess I had to hit back.
WFR.com: What kind of reaction did the story receive when initially published?
Stephen Graham Jones: It ran in a lit journal, Iron Horse Literary Review. They called last-minute—I know the people there—and said they needed a story fast, and knew that I had one. And I did. So it became theirs. As for reaction: none. I mean, none that I know of. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever lucked onto, too, one of the most personal somehow, even though it’s white guys in Wyoming dealing with science-fiction kind of stuff. But that’s the way it always goes. The ones I think are broke, I send them out and they go everywhere. The ones written in blood directly from my heart, blood that I kind of actually needed to live, people scrape them off their desk, into the trashcan. Not saying there’s no accounting for taste. I’m saying I’m the last person to have any good guess about whether something’s got legs or not. Feel completely lucky that “Little Lambs” made the cut for The Weird, though. Maybe it’s getting its legs. Maybe it’s a centipede butterfly. And, Matt Bell, he’s got a story—is it called “The Receiving Tower,” maybe?—that I found right after “Little Lambs” ran. No, somebody hit me with that story, because they’d read “Little Lambs,” I guess. And the stories, they’re not the same, but there’s kind of similar stuff going on in them. Was weird for me reading his, anyway. And wonderful, of course. So, maybe that’s my real answer, the real response to “Little Lambs”: a story. Somebody gave me a story. That’s about the best response there is, yeah?
WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?
Stephen Graham Jones: I think it’s Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It’s Donald Barthelme through a Lewis Carroll filter as recorded by Rikki Ducornet on some of Coleridge’s good opium, but there’s some Douglas Adams sensibility in there as well, and some Italo Calvino layering. I’ve never looked at a bicycle the same since. That book needed a Philip Jose Farmer cover, not the one it’s got. Maybe almost as weird, though, are some of the stories from Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angeldust Apocalypse. There’s this one about a nurse running a fetus through a rebirther over and over, and I’ve never been able to shake that story. Not that I really want to. It doesn’t make me look at rebirthers any different, but that’s just because rebirthers don’t exist. But people do. And I do, now, look at them different, I suspect. Closer. Like maybe there’s an externally-bladdered moose-antlered thing clumping up behind them, and this person knows it’s there but’s daring me not to see it. I do, though. I can’t not, not any more.