D.P. Watt and the Surreal: “I see fiction as an environment of exploration and experiment”

Phantasmagorical Imperative

This year has been a fantastic year for D.P. Watt. First, his short story collection, An Emporium of Automata, was reprinted by Eibonvale Press; we printed one of the stories from this collection, “Erbach’s Emporium of Automata”. Also, Watt has a new collection this year from Egaeus Press called The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications and Watt’s fiction was collected in the Zagava/Ex Occidente anthology, Infra Noir. There’s good reason why Watt had such an excellent year: his fiction is some of the most unique and fascinating in the contemporary Weird scene. As a writer, Watt is not afraid to push boundaries as his work covers a wide range of subjects from photography to theater to philosophy while utilizing elements from everything from magical realism to dark fantasy. Weird Fiction Review recently had a chance to catch up with Watt and we asked him some questions about his new releases.

Give us a bit of information about The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications. How does it fit into your body of work? What stories are new and where do others come from?

The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications collects shorts stories and two novellas from 2011-2013 and includes two previously unpublished tales, ‘By Nature’s Power Enshrined’ and ‘14ml of Matt Enamel #61’. It continues some of my interests in the transformative capacities of matter and the nature of objects.

The stories come from a range of publications. The two novellas were both published by Ex Occidente Press. ‘The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller’ is a more experimental work, following two (or perhaps three) dead souls on a variety of journeys, and seems to be either loved or loathed. ‘Dehiscence’ was part of ‘The Last Thinkers’ boxed set, and, again explores the relationship we have to objects and the nature of caring for things and their histories.

I enjoy writing to themes and three of the tales were in response to calls. ‘Holzwege’ attempts to evoke something of H.H. Ewers work that Side Real Press have been promoting very well indeed. ‘…he was water before he was fire…’ examines ‘thin places’ and is set beside a wonderful Loch that I had visited first as a child and never forgot. ‘Vertep’ takes Stravinsky’s Petruska and a jack-in-the-box to explore classical music with a very gruesome conclusion.

‘A Harvest of Abandon’ was first published in BOOK, and it blends my interest in objects with writing, with a bloody twist. ‘Laudate Dominum (for many voices)’, a tale set in Cornwall involving musical machines, appeared in Michael Kelly’s journal Shadows and Tall Trees, which, I understand, has sadly closed until further notice. It was reprinted in Johnny Mains’ Best British Horror 2014.

The title story first appeared in Sacrum Regnum journal and synthesises many of my obsessions; performance, magic, and the world of things, mainly. It contains something of a playful manifesto.

D P WattI love the use of visual media in The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications. It reminds me a lot of 19th century literature in a way and it’s a shame that illustrated fiction fell out of favor in the 20th century. Did you select the images for your work? If so, how did you go about finding and deciding to include which images with which stories?

Mark Beech at Egaeus Press has produced a stunning book. I am so grateful to him for all the work he put into the book’s design. It is always a joy to work with a publisher who understands the material, in many ways better than you do yourself. When he showed me ideas for its layout and the use of the visual material therein it always echoed the mood, and often the setting of the stories perfectly.

We pooled our collection of images that appear within. I sent through many cartes de visite scans, and other photographs that I had gathered from here and there and Mark added a number of his own, and then set to work transforming them into a sort of decaying scrapbook that you work to piece together.

It is sad that the illustrated book fell out of favour, but I think many small presses now are producing books that focus on the aesthetic force of the book as object, which, again, resonates perfectly with the stories contained in this collection. It made the process of compiling and editing the book a real delight too.

The name “The Phantasmagorical Imperative” is a play on Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. How does that relate to the short story? Moreover, how do you come up with these rather imaginative names for your stories and how do they typically fit the stories you’re writing?

I mentioned above that it was a ‘manifesto’, of sorts. I was trying to imagine the possibility of an ethical imperative driven by change and wonder, rather than by the universal replication that one finds in Kant’s Categorical Imperative. That is not to say that it is a guiding moral principle, far from it, but instead an openness to uncertainty and the imaginary.

Titles are obviously vital, especially in a short story, and sometimes I work from them, and at others I discover them along the way. Often I find that they offer a way of re-reading the story, that (a little like the phantasmagorical imperative suggests in relation to objects) can re-make them into an entirely new tale.

Sometimes a story will sit around for quite a while with a very bland title that frustrates and annoys me up to the point that its real title emerges.

I’m interested to know more about the setting for the stories of The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications. While some of the stories seem more modern, some seem to take place at a time in our history or perhaps in a fantastical world not too different from Victorian England. How do you tend to view the settings for your fiction?

Much of what I write comes from places I have been and, again, a sort of transformation takes place as you experiment with the imagined setting (or the idealised one that memory re-crafts).

Everything is in service to the story. So, it is driven by the nature of the weird, supernatural, or strange element at its heart, and then the place in history, or in a more fantastical parallel time, appears as the planning and plotting of the tale takes place. Often a story is buzzing around my head for many months, and may go through stages of being relocated historically.

With an overtly historical setting a certain alienation occurs, and a tendency towards caricature. Sometimes this can work very well, but I often like to play with the relationship between the reader and the writer, and with a historical setting this can be difficult to achieve. I suppose the responsibility is to always be attentive to the setting, because it is the characters’ environment, and theirs are the stories (however odd they might be) that you are trying to show. It is always theatrical, of course, we know we’re not there—they’re not there—but sometimes showing a little of the construction of the setting can pay dividends back to the core fantastical element you are attempting to evoke.

D P Watt 3I’ve noticed this dichotomy in your works that I see in a lot of weird fiction. In some works like “Dr Dapertutto’s Saturnalia”, you have this idea that the world is random — that it’s strange and inexplicable. In other works, there’s this sort of justice where one’s actions incur a payment that must be repaid. We see this in “By Nature’s Power Enshrined.” What’s the sort of inspiration behind these stories? Do you tend to believe in either worldview?

That’s funny you should mention ‘Dr Dapertutto’s Saturnalia’ presenting a ‘random world’; I think it is a good example of the tension many of the stories attempt to create between the inexplicable and the fated. In that story, the main character finds that things are not as chaotic and disordered as he first thought them to be, and, indeed, that his own words are appearing from an elaborate script over which he has no control. Yes, it’s strange and inexplicable, but certainly not random, and that creates another layer of sinister strangeness to it. The question of ‘justice’ raises an interesting point—there are debts to be paid for the kinds of creative abilities that many of the characters develop.

At the heart of all of this is not a belief in a particular worldview, as such—nor, indeed, the proselytising of any particular semi-doctrine. The tension you outline feeds back into what I mention above concerning transformation. I see fiction as an environment of exploration and experiment, where the reader and writer can use the imagination to examine modes of consciousness and creativity. If fiction were simply the replication of the world then it becomes nothing more than a dull map of a bland terrain, if it can colour the hills purple and the sky green it allows thought some liberation from an obligation to repeat and become confined by routine. It’s also great fun!

I love the variety that one encounters when they read your fiction. From elements of surrealism to philosophical and introspective prose, there’s a lot of different styles and modes of writing you incorporate into your stories. Is that a conscious decision or does it occur naturally as you write?

Style is governed very much by what the story needs to do, and often I use direct address to the reader, which I know can sometimes come across as rather didactic. It is not meant to and is there, again, to raise that possibility of some creative transaction that goes beyond the delivery of the tale itself.

Once the style has asserted itself it then becomes more consciously deployed to achieve this—sometimes it works, and sometimes I have to begin again, or rewrite within a new framework, to pursue new avenues that have arisen.

Are there any works you feel that are under-appreciated that you’d like to recommend to us? Maybe works that are weird fiction or exist just outside the bounds of weird fiction that have influenced your work?

I think there are so many ways now to get recommendations and advice on writers, from open-access journals to lively web forums, that few writers who, twenty years ago, might have been difficult to obtain, or remained pretty obscure, remain so. While I often see people state that X, Y or Z writer is under-appreciated, I wonder if that’s really the case. I think they are often read, now, by those who will really appreciate their work. We move towards a fragmented, but oddly focused, engagement with literature and that seems to have happened from the ground up, and is governed by genuine enthusiasm (not simple fandom!) and a deep critical knowledge, and long may it continue.

As for recent ‘weird delights’ that I’ve had recommended to me I’d include Géza Csáth’s The Magician’s Garden, Fyodor Sologub’s Petty Demon and The Sweet-scented Name, Vlado Žabot’s The Succubus, and an author who I’m sure is very familiar to WFR readers but who was entirely new to me—Stephen Millhauser, and his collection We Others. I am just about to start Edwin Muir’s The Marionette, which looks intriguing!

Influences can be hard to follow but I’d say my interests are more in the realm of the European fantastic rather than the Lovecraftian ‘Weird’ tradition—Hoffmann, Kafka and Huysmans and the strange tales of Aickman are very important to me, as are the works of Grabinski, Schulz and Walser. Where they all live on the weird fiction spectrum I’m not certain, but the breadth of a work such as the Vandermeer’s The Weird just goes to show what a wonderful tradition this kind of fiction embraces.

Do you have any future work or plans that you’d like to mention?

I’m currently working on a novella and a new collection of stories, called Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, which should, hopefully, be published next year.

There’s also the ever-growing list of short stories waiting to get written—perhaps, one day, they will.