Interview: Simon Strantzas and the Weird

"Leave yourself open to the strange, and soon you will see it everywhere"

Simon Strantzas is the author of the critically-acclaimed Cold to the Touch (Tartarus Press, 2009), a collection of thirteen tales of the strange and supernatural. His first collection, Beneath the Surface (Humdrumming, 2008), has been called “one of the most important debut short story collections in the genre”. Strantzas’s stories have appeared in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Cemetery Dance, and Postscripts. In 2009, his work was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. His third collection, Nightingale Songs, is now available from Dark Regions Press, as are his other collections. I recently interviewed Strantzas about weird fiction, his writing, and his story “Mr. Kneale,” reprinted elsewhere on this site from Nightingale Songs.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And which stories or writers with weird tendencies do you remember most vividly from that period?

Simon Strantzas: Weird fiction was neither welcome nor unwelcome in my home. My mother was an avid reader, and she never put any boundaries on what books I might choose. I was free to explore the full breadth and depths of the written word, and I took advantage of that freedom primarily by reading comic books and pulpy action/adventure series. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn’t foster a long love affair with horror from a young age — I came to it in my mid-teens, led there by Neil Gaiman’s horror/fantasy comic, Sandman. It was here I was first alerted to the name Clive Barker, and it was Barker’s short novel Cabal that sent me over horror’s precipice.

It would be disingenuous to say I’d never had a taste for the bizarre, for the grotesque, but what child doesn’t to some degree? I never paid it much attention. I suppose, in hindsight, it’s no accident my love of horror blossomed around the same age one starts to develop a philosophy about the world, and questions one’s place in it. My inward search for understanding led me to the dark veil behind horror just as surely as my love of the strange did.

What books I read before that transformation has been lost to the mists of time. I can tell you I recall reading one of the fondly remembered Hitchcock anthologies from my local library, and borrowing one of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood from the older sister of a friend. I can also tell you that I owned a book of children’s horror stories that frightened me to such a degree I’m still not sure I ever fully recovered.

WFR: Of all weird writers or artists you can think of, which ones do you think are most unjustly overlooked or under-read?

Strantzas: I must admit I’m not sure what “overlooked” really means. Does it mean by the wider field of literature as a whole? Then I’d argue that almost all weird, especially in the western world, is overlooked. Yet there are pockets that keep even the lesser known names alive, enough so that those engulfed “in the know” are as familiar with the names as they are their own. Thomas Owen, L.A. Lewis, John Metcalfe — these are names that don’t come easily to even the most well-read of readers, even those who are steeped in the horror genre, yet turn a corner at a convention and you’re sure to find a pocket of writers who light a candle for them. Do I wish I lived in a world where the weird writers were better remembered and given status? Perhaps. But I also wonder if what makes those writers so appealing is that their visions are too different to ever hold the spotlight long. Perhaps the only way creatures like these thrive is in the shadows, in the dark.

WFR: In his introduction to your collection Nightingale Songs, John Langan mentions your shared affection for Ramsey Campbell and Robert Aickman. What in particular do you think draws you to their work? What in their writing do you think most affects your own?

Strantzas: Aickman’s work arguably has had the greatest influence on me, both as a reader and as a writer. His exploration of the unconscious, of the subconscious, is unlike anything else I’ve read. His work is opaque, metaphorical, and begs an understanding of event that moves beyond plot into something more. And yet, despite how cerebral a writer he appears, his fiction is basically of emotion, of bitterness and fear and love and lust. Perhaps especially lust. Aickman’s sexuality is laid on the page like a puzzle, and like the sexuality of everyone I’ve ever met, it’s a knotted tangle one could never hope to untie. How different this is from traditional narratives!

Ramsey Campbell, on the other hand… well, what can one really say about Ramsey Campbell that hasn’t been said thousands of times? There is a rhythm to Campbell’s writing, a sort of lullaby that lulls you not into a dream but into a nightmare. His control of words and their suggestive power is incredible. I’ve spoken in the past of how deceptively simple Stephen King’s writing is, how once you start reading his work you slip right inside it, become a part of it. This is King’s genius. And yet, no one can sink you into waking nightmare as quickly or a smoothly as Campbell.

Perhaps, though, what I like best of Ramsey Campbell isn’t his fiction, but his attitude about the horror genre. He is unabashedly unashamed to be a horror writer, and sees the same endless landscape in the genre that I do. There are no boundaries in horror.

WFR: Are there any other writers or artists you want to mention as influences on your writing?

Strantzas: It goes without saying Thomas Ligotti has proven a large influence, as has the work of HP Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. They all, in their way, helped show me that there was more beneath the surface of the everyday than I cared to admit. Writers like Steve Rasnic Tem and Lisa Tuttle have further spoken to me, as have authors like Bruno Schultz and Kafka and Borges. The early fiction of Canadian author Kenneth J Harvey, too, has helped shape me, despite the lack of the truly supernatural in his work. I firmly believe authors have “touchstone” stories — specific pieces of fiction that for one reason or another forever resonate inside them and inform all their work moving forward. Each of these writers I’ve mentioned have contributed something to me that make my work what it is. I can’t imagine what I’d be writing without them.

WFR: As a writer and reader, what draws you most frequently to weird fiction? When, if ever, does it falter for you?

Strantzas: Weird fiction must maintain a delicate balance of being strange, yet not simply so for strange’s sake. Each piece of fiction to me is a puzzle, an equation, a Goldbergian mechanism, designed to function as something greater than the sum of its parts. Good fiction needs to express its themes and characters and plot in a way in which each are balanced, each revealing themselves in a strange and bizarre way. I see it so rarely in the contemporary fiction I read that I despair sometimes I’ll never enjoy another new piece of work. Then, unexpectedly, I’ll stumble across a writer I’ve never before read, and vistas open up before me. It’s these moments I live for as a reader, and those moments that inspire me to continue as a writer.

WFR: Clearly, your story “Mr. Kneale” takes much of its detail in setting and character from the world of horror and literary conventions. Was there a specific event or person that led to the inception of that story, or was it more influenced by your overall experience at cons?

Strantzas: In some ways, “Mr Kneale” reflects my transition to what I like to call an “adult” writer. Not due to its subject matter, but rather my own casting off of the yoke that strangles many young writers with aspirations of creating something literary — that being that the only acceptable form of fiction is that which strives to be Art. Like many, I snubbed my nose at other writers who wanted to entertain, who held the “Art” writers as pompous just as we held them as wasting their talents on drivel. But a funny thing happened to me: I realized, finally, that all fiction is a spectrum of art versus entertainment, and the extremes were non-existent other than in our own minds. The writer who wants to entertain tries as hard as the writer who wants to inspire — both want to do the best they can. No one really “phones it in”. We are all working toward the same goal, regardless of our motivations. We want to be read, we want to have an effect on our readers. We all want to be remembered.

With these thoughts circling my brainpan, it seems inevitable they would find their way into my work, and this tale of the pale, pug-nosed Mr Kneale fit the bill perfectly. The convention? It was merely window dressing to allow me a chance to lay out my thoughts for the world. That I was provided the opportunity to throw a few low ball punches at the genre I loved was only gravy. Sweet, succulent gravy.

WFR: Besides the story at hand in “Mr. Kneale,” with the narrator, his friend Gahan, and the titular character, there’s also this ongoing examination of the field of horror fiction and the role horror plays. What do you see as the purpose of horror and weird fiction, at their best? Any shared ground or differences between the two?

Strantzas: The more time that passes, the more uncomfortable I grow with all these terms. New Weird, Weird, Bizarro, Dark Fantasy… to me, they are simply Horror. I don’t mean HORROR, the industry label, but “horror”, the age old genre. As I mentioned previously, I see the genre as a wide field, one that stretches forever outward. Travel far enough in one direction and it might become science fiction, or in other direction a thriller. Take a turn, and you may end up in a fable, or a romantic adventure. Anywhere the unreal, the unusual, the unexplained can happen, horror is there. Genres like horror, like fantasy, are all-encompassing. Each is a sub-genre of the other, each can define every written word in relation to itself. And, yet, each are trapped by their marketing buzzword, shrunk and stuffed into tiny boxes and sold over the counter as pale imitations of what they really are.

But horror is still important to us. It allows us to examine the unknowable through metaphor, to better understand what happens in the darkness. There are few among us who are truly willing to explore who they are, what dark impulses breed beneath their veneer of sociality. Horror is here to do the exploring for them, to hold up that dark mirror and show them what they really are behind their masks. The genre’s importance cannot be underestimated, although it almost always is.

WFR: Like much weird fiction, so much of your own writing seems to take care not to reveal much of the impetus behind supernatural or otherwise unexplainable elements. How do you know how much to reveal and how much to leave unexplained?

Strantzas: A guess? I haven’t the foggiest. I travel these waters by instinct. If there’s one thing I learned early, it’s that no matter what you do, half the readers won’t understand what you’ve done, a quarter will only pretend they do, and the rest are already two steps ahead of you. Because of this, I’ve stopped worrying about how others dissect my fiction and simply write it the way it wants to be written. Sometimes, it means making the metaphors big and in the reader’s face, other times it means working with so light a touch it’s not clear what’s happened or why. But, and this I can’t stress enough, there is always a why. To return to what I said previously, some authors throw the weird in simply for the sake of being weird, and the story suffers. There is no internal reason for the weird to exist. The art of subtlety demands there is a reason for everything. The reader must understand that the writer is aware of every gossamer thread, and each pull is completely intentional. Only then will the reader close his eyes and trust the writer, leaving his sixth sense open to intuit everything that’s been laid out before him. Or her, of course.

WFR: What’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?

Strantzas: They are all weird in their way, whether in bizarre sexuality, strange morphology, or unusual personality. Simple humanity is weird. That said, a tale that first comes to mind is Aickman’s “The Swords”, a combination of all three in a way that will stick to your soul if you let it. Or perhaps Ramsey Campbell’s novel The Grin of the Dark, so weird and unsettling I can’t say liked it. All I can say is that I experienced it and came out the other end relatively intact. Relatively. At least I hope.

The writer Richard Gavin once expressed the notion to me that an author of the weird ought to give his life over to it, learn to live every moment of every day as though inside a horror story. Walk down a tree-lined street, and learn to see the menace behind the trunks. See an unoccupied ladder up against a house, and feel the ominous quiet that surrounds it. Leave yourself open to the strange, and soon you will see it everywhere. I feel much the same about the power of weird fiction. Horror fiction informs my life in countless ways, has shaped how I view my very existence. Every weird book or story I’ve read serves only to further bend or twist my outlook on this world and how I experience it. I like to think this isn’t something unique only to me, but instead happens to all readers of weird fiction. We are all simultaneously blessed and cursed by our love for it, and once it has its hooks in us we have no hope of struggling free, even if we wanted. Thankfully, I don’t.

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