It’s really interesting to see the weird fiction coming out from the other side of the Atlantic. The British Isles have been producing some of the most fascinating weird fiction of the past decade due in part to authors like Reggie Oliver, Rhys Hughes, and publishers like Tartarus and Swan River. Of course, it’d be a great disservice to overlook Mark Samuels who’s released a number of extraordinary collections and short stories. One of my personal favorite short stories, “Apartment 205,” was authored by Samuels. This year Samuels will be releasing his fifth collection, Written in Darkness, which you can now preorder from the Egaeus Press website. Weird Fiction Review had a chance to ask him about his new collection, his recent influences, and what’s next for him.
Weird Fiction Review: The big question I have is about your new book, Written in Darkness. When was it written? Are these original tales or reprints? What served as inspiration for these tales? How do you write in darkness without light?
Mark Samuels: The earliest tale in the book was written in 2011. Of the rest, most date from last year. Four of the nine stories in total have seen publication beforehand and the remaining five are original to the collection.
Some of the stories stem from deliberate requests for tribute stories to other authors. For example, “My Heretical Existence” first appeared in the Bruno Schulz tribute anthology This Hermetic Legislature and “In Eternity Two Lines Intersect” appeared in the Arthur Machen tribute anthology Sorcery and Sanctity. “The Ruins of Reality” was originally intended to be earmarked for a Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology whose editor asked me for something, but along the way the writing of it rather came off the rails and it didn’t, in my view, qualify as such, so it was not submitted. I think a little research will enable anyone interested to find out who the central character in “A Call to Greatness” is based on (it’s an actual historical personage who, I have no doubt, would have had the likes of me executed on the spot). “The Other Tenant” is a generic satire on the idea that only people on the left can be “nice” (some disgruntled soul called it little more than “red-baiting” in a review of the anthology it first appeared in, which rather proved my point). “Alistair” was derived from the first chapter of what was to be a long dynastic novel concerning some Highgate horrors. It’s all that can be salvaged from a mass of notebook entries and fragments that wouldn’t cohere. “Outside Interference” is really a tale in which the lift (“elevator” in America) is the main protagonist. I have a terror of those devices. “My World Has No Memories” draws inspiration from Donald Crowhurst’s doomed round-the-world voyage in 1968. “An Hourglass of the Soul” derives from conversations with a friend of mine who works for one of the big multinational computer corporations.
I think it’s possible to write in total darkness. The blind must do so. On the other hand the title of the book could refer to darkness as a metaphorical type of ink, perhaps. Hmmm…
WFR: Do you consider Written in Darkness to be a new direction for you or is this building on works in White Hands and Man Who Collected Machen?
MS: No, it’s the same old type of weird fiction people have come to expect from me. I don’t know if I get any better at it, but that’s not for me to judge, but I feel it still best expresses what I most want to do as a writer. Incidentally, I did write a collection of stories concurrently with Written in Darkness that are completely off in a new direction, and far more commercial; a series of tall tales in the vein of Dunsany’s Jorkens yarns but featuring strange football (in America, “soccer”) matches. No-one I’ve so far approached seems willing to pay me an advance for it!
WFR: I read an interview you did about 8 years ago where you cited authors like Lovecraft and Machen as influences. Have your influences changed at all since then? Have you discovered any new authors or works that maybe have had an impact on your writing?
MS: I still re-read Machen and Lovecraft regularly, the same with Poe, Ligotti, Grabinski and Borges. I don’t tire of their work. But I am always desperately in search of new influences. Currently, I want to read more Dino Buzzati (I’ve only read his collection Restless Nights) and sample Edogawa Rampo and Leopoldo Lugones (both of whose work I’ve not yet read), for example.
I think Reggie Oliver is probably the last author, in the weird fiction contiuum, whose work I discovered and immediately classified as superlative. But that was more than a decade ago now. I am amazed at how he is able to fuse being highly prolific and consistently producing such excellent, original tales. I suppose his example rather makes me think I should try and write more than I have thus far!
WFR: For people who are new to you and your fiction, where do you recommend they start? Is Written in Darkness a good starting point?
MS: This is a hard question to answer. People who like what I do generally cite either The Man Who Collected Machen or The White Hands as being the collection they’ve most enjoyed. The latter has been continuously in print since 2003, no small feat I suspect. I still believe Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes has its merits too. Not least because it includes my joint most-reprinted tale “A Gentleman from Mexico”. Oddly enough it’s also the one book of mine that hasn’t appeared in a paperback edition. Of late, I’ve been trying to remedy that situation. But to come back to the question, I suppose I could just roll out the usual author’s saw that I think my latest book is my best. Truthfully though, I really suspect it doesn’t matter much where one starts, it’s the vision that’s the thing, and Written in Darkness certainly contains just as many notable examples of my craft as the other collections.
WFR: Since it’s the centennial anniversary of Robert Aickman’s birthday I wanted to ask you if Aickman influenced you. You’ve never talked about Aickman before from what I’ve seen. Have you read him and if so, has he influenced your work at all?
MS: I don’t know that Aickman has influenced my work in any significant, directional sense. However, I do remember thinking that my tale “Ghorla” from Glyphotech owed something, at least tangentially, to “Ringing the Changes”. Generally, my effects are far more obvious than Aickman’s. His tend to be in the background whereas mine are very much in the foreground. It’s doubtless to his advantage. Still, I don’t think I could attempt to do what he did and carry it off.
Nevertheless, it would be remiss of me not to mention that I share some of the concerns he expressed in his fiction; there is, for example, a distinct vein of resistance in his work to the values of modernity, socialism and industrialism. On the other hand, the theories of Freud, which he adhered to, strike me as farcical.
WFR: You’ve earned respect and admiration from some big names in weird fiction like Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell. I’m wondering how that’s been for you. Has it given you confidence or made you nervous?
MS: I doubt Tom Ligotti has read anything of mine since my first collection The White Hands a decade back. He was certainly supportive about the book. I think he’s still the greatest living author of weird fiction. We used to communicate with one another regularly via email. This started before the book appeared and for a few years afterwards. I still have all the correspondence printed out somewhere. After a while I became concerned I was imposing on his time and ended up bothering fellow devotees of his work over at the internet forum Thomas Ligotti Online instead. They’re the most amiable and interesting bunch of gents and ladies! I’ve made several firm friends there.
As for Ramsey, I’ve spoken with him more in person than via email. Of course, this has mainly been at past conventions and the like. He has invariably been very enthusiastic about my work and wrote the introduction to Glyphotech. I believe one of the greatest weird novels ever is his The Grin of the Dark. Of course it would be superfluous to say, too, he’s written some of the greatest weird tales ever.
I may have said this before, but I tend not to think in terms of praise affecting me positively or negatively. I fear too much praise at the start of an author’s emergence into print can be a hindrance, and will come back to haunt you, but it hasn’t for me because I never really sought it out at the start. When I first started corresponding with Tom Ligotti it was very much as a fan. Ramsey read my work, I suppose, via the recommendation of Stephen Jones. It was all accidental and not planned.
Anyway, what I was most proud of was being considered to be part of a continuum in weird fiction, rather than some apotheosis. I didn’t, and don’t, look at it any other way.
WFR: Have you given any thought about what’s next for you?
MS: There are still quite a few books left in me. That’s enough of a goal for me to keep going for now. I believe we authors, and readers too, often make the mistake of thinking a writer’s creative curve is always upward. It’s not. It rises and falls, and no-one can tell, unless the curve suddenly stops dead, quite where we are.