Interview: Steve Rasnic Tem on Weird Fiction and Deadfall Hotel

"I felt as if I'd been stripped naked and put on display."

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel has been keenly anticipated by weird fiction geeks for more than two decades, ever since horror icon Charles L. Grant published the story “Bloodwolf” in his anthology Shadows 9 (1986). Now the novel has been published, finally, in a beautiful, gift-worthy limited edition by Centipede Press, to be followed by a mass market from Solaris next year. Tem, a winner of the World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award, is a formidable short story writer as well, with many hundreds, if not thousands, of short stories appearing over the years in the best fantasy and horror publications and many year’s best anthologies.

What is Deadfall Hotel about? A haunted hotel with a long pedigree that has fallen into disrepair. To this afflicted place comes a widower who takes over the job of managing the hotel, accompanied by his daughter and the ghost of his wife. The hotel isn’t exactly promising real estate: “A curtain of gnarled, skeletal oak and pine hides it from the rest of the world. The hotel is not well-lit, there is no sign, and night comes early here …the hotel appears to follow the jumbled line of a train wreck, carts thrown out at all angles and yet still attached in sequence.”

In addition to some affinities of place with Peake’s work, Deadfall Hotel reminds the reader of Ray Bradbury, Edward Gorey, and Shirley Jackson without being derivative. Far from it — indeed, the novel provides a smorgasbord of sweet spots for the weird fiction connoisseur. Nightmares, supernatural creatures, cults, eccentric characters, and the atmosphere of the titular hotel all combine for a fascinating read. With the popularity of TV shows like American Horror Story, the timing seems right, as well (although we think Deadfall is much more interesting.)

We’re pleased to bring readers a long self-contained excerpt from the novel, “The King of the Cats,” which we will run in four parts, the first two already online and the third posting this Thursday. Recently, we interviewed Tem via email about his novel and about weird fiction… 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?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Books in general weren’t welcomed, or easily available to us, what with no public library, no bookstores, and a spare collection at school. The only books in our house were a collection of Children’s classics my mother bought from a travelling salesman when my dad wasn’t around. There was Alice in Wonderland, Grimm’s Fairytales, King Arthur, and Robin Hood, a few others. I read them over and over, and developed a craving for books that’s never abated. I especially liked Alice and the fairytales. To me they were oddly “real.” Much later I decided they described a level of experience that was essential, just not visible or literal. That perception was at the heart of my attraction to weird writings. I grew up in a very poor part of Virginia. Books were rare, and I learned early on to crave them. The school library did have some folklore and odd old volumes of Verne — I assume those were donated. I devoured all that, and when the region finally got its first public library (my 7th or 8th grade year) I spent most of my time in the SF section — and they had a bookmobile that came right out our street! It felt like a miracle. And I begged my mother once a month to drive me to another town to pick up paperbacks and the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction at a rather dubious combination pool hall/newstand.

My dad, and in fact most of the people I knew, thought it all nonsense, and a waste of time. Becoming a writer seemed as likely as becoming an astronaut. We only knew of one writer to have lived in that isolated part of SW Virginia, John Fox Jr. (Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come), although Kentucky’s Jesse Stuart was of some importance. I was pretty much a lone outcast as far as I knew. I wrote stories, and made art, but hid it all away. When my mother found it she’d show it around, and even my dad acted as if he were proud, but it was too late. I was furious — for me creation had become this private thing — I felt as if I’d been stripped naked and put on display. Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and does it matter to you?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Matter to me, no. Playing off genre can be interesting, but genres are like these rather arbitrary sorting bins for the raw products of the imagination, and sometimes some awfully good stuff falls out of those bins never to be seen again.

But “horror” and “the weird” do feel like two different ideas to me. There’s a great deal of overlap, but I see some distinctions. Horror is, as is often said, an emotion. It’s an emotional response to certain mysteries, dangers, loses, tragedies and potential tragedies. It’s fear, but it goes deeper I think, shaking you at an existential level. An important part of the engine that drives it is this absurdist notion that you’re going to die. How can you die, when so much of your vision, your longing, your shared perception, smacks of the immortal? And that absurd notion of mortality — which is also of course quite real — is also part of the engine that drives our sense of the weird.

Although an emotional response is important in any sort of fiction (for me, it’s an essential quality of the best fiction) our response to the weird, I think, is less emotional than it is an intellectual/perceptual reaction. To me the heart of the weird is that something occurs in a piece of fiction which is obviously impossible, absolutely cannot happen within the context of consensual reality, and yet it feels absolutely true, expressive of some psychological or emotional reality. This can be a startling perception. We react to the weird with a sense of frisson, but it’s not necessarily a fearful reaction, a reaction of horror. It can be, but I think it’s just as likely that we’ll react to the weird story with a sense of delight, with no fear at all.

Another difference is that although many crime stories are horror stories, because of their dark suspense content, most are too much about consensual reality (although that reality may be heightened in some way — providing a semblance of the weird, but never quite actually crossing that line) to be called weird fiction.

When I first encountered weird fiction it was that sense of a mysterious or hidden truth involved which made me want to write it. I’ve always seen the weird (and horror, for that matter) as a way of extending the range of reality fiction might express. In a sense it recovers those realities, makes them more accessible to us. It expands realism, rather than opposes it. Are there particular weird influences you care to point to in terms of your own work? Anyone you think readers might be surprised by?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Probably no surprises, really. Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Richard Brautigan, Barthleme, Barth, Kenneth Patchen, MR James, AW Burrage, the surrealists, Ellison, Disch, Ballard, Ramsey Campbell, Bradbury, fables fairytales folklore of all types, Ovid. I’ve also been heavily influenced by visual artists — Francis Bacon, the German Expressionists, Soutine, Munch, Chagall. The influences are really too numerous to list. When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?

Steve Rasnic Tem: For me it fails when it’s too arbitrary, and ironically, too distant from reality. As I said, to me weird fiction is basically an extension of realism. It has to be “about” something, even if it’s absurdist in approach (absurdism can be the best technique, actually, for expressing these absurd times we live in). It’s easy to write something with a weird surface — you can write down something like “A penguin walks down the street wearing a thong and strumming his banjo.” But without an emotional context, and a sense that it expresses some nonobvious truth, it’s nothing but a string of arbitrary words meant to sound strange. I’ve read far too many failed pieces which seem to reach no further than that. (But given time, I’d feel challenged to provide a context that would make such a line work.)

That’s one of the reasons weird fiction is so difficult to write and critique, or to get better at. How do you tell if what you’ve written is meaningful weird fiction, or something that merely “reads weird”? In some ways it resists analysis. You can read examples of the weird, thinking about why it makes you feel the way it does, but what it may come down to is either you develop an ear for it or you don’t. Which is why there can be such a wide range of opinion concerning what works and what doesn’t work in weird fiction.

Humor can also pull a story out of the weird I think. Humor is its own thing, and cross-genre, really. It consumes genre distinctions to achieve its major purpose, which is to be funny — and these oh-so serious categories, these so-called distinctions, are ultimately unimportant. I suppose that’s a kind of failure if you’re trying to write a horror story, or a weird story, but really, who cares — if it’s a good piece of humor, that’s something to value and embrace. What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Generally? For most readers I’d say it’s the entertainment value — the thrill, the scare, the cleverness, the means it provides the audience to avoid thinking about the issues which truly worry and scare them.

But I think I’m in the minority, as many of its writers are – that’s not why I read weird fiction. I don’t necessarily need to be entertained — I entertain myself quite easily, thank you very much. And I don’t want to use it to escape or avoid — humor serves that particular function for me. I’m looking for fiction that moves me, that takes me places I’ve never been before, that uncovers more of the mystery that is ourselves and ourselves in the world. I go to weird fiction for a different lens to view the world. What is the hardest thing to get right in a supernatural story?

Steve Rasnic Tem: How much to reveal and when to reveal it, I think, is the second most difficult thing. The hardest thing is presenting the supernatural element as if it makes perfect sense, so that it has the air of something essential, so that it has a kind of inevitability, so that we get beyond the belief that this is all just make believe. How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?

Steve Rasnic Tem: A great deal of the world, and a great deal of human behavior, seems imperfectly understandable to me. Just common things, which we’re supposed to accept as normal, but which still seem strange to me. As one example, why are some people so invisible to the rest of us? We speak to them, they stand right in front of us, and yet we don’t really see them. They fade into the background. How does it feel to be that person, recognizing how invisible they’ve become and wondering why? Why does that happen? That became my short story “Invisible.” How would you describe the differences between a story writer and a novel writer?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Short story writers tend to have a hunger for that immediate creative gratification. They crave that feeling of a project completed, and to have that feeling every few weeks, or several times a year is just a tremendous turn on. The short story form also provides a kind of fiction laboratory — because of its brevity some rather tenuous, delicate approaches can be sustained, odd conceits indulged, and poetic elements have a compressed space in which to properly resonate.

Novels are well suited for writers interested in a long span of time and an extensive landscape, in large structural issues, in operatic scope and emotion. Some rather big ideas require that kind of space. But you have to be able to muster the patience to delay gratification for such a long time — not everyone can do it.

I have both kinds of writer in me, but the short story seems to come more naturally, and I like the idea that it’s like pulling off a delicate performance in which you could easily fail. And it suits my often impatient nature. On the other hand, the sense of completion you get when finishing a book is huge — there’s nothing quite like it. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing Deadfall Hotel? The obvious question to start with is: why did it take so long to complete?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Ah, that is the big question. It would be nice to say I spent years polishing it as if it were some sort of precious stone, laboring daily in hopes of creating a masterpiece. But it wasn’t like that — I’m not that slow. Several things were involved. The first is, frankly, that I’m a rather self-indulgent writer largely driven by creative whim. I start and stop projects all the time, interrupting them because of some new inspiration. I know people view me as being quite prolific, but except in rare instances I’m not one to sit down and bang out a story. Most take months. I see that an anthology is coming, or I get an invite, and even if I start right then it’s likely to require the entire submission period to finish. I’m prolific because I’m constantly writing, with numerous projects going at once, and I have disks full of partially completed work I regularly return to — so a lot does get out the door, but the life of an individual project can be quite lengthy. The YA novel I just finished, The Mask Shop of Dr. Blaack, began life as 50 pages written on a Commodore 64 and saved to a tape drive. That was — well, I don’t even want to say how long ago that was.

But there is an additional factor where this novel is concerned. In 1988 when our son Anthony died (and which Melanie and I wrote about in The Man On The Ceiling), I was laboring daily on Deadfall Hotel and another novel, Ubo, an ambitious work about human violence. It was an intense, obsessive period, and already an emotional strain, because Ubo was about the worst things I could imagine, and Deadfall dealt in part with this idea of how do you keep your children safe, and working on these books, and then spending time with my children, was a strange experience, especially in the case of Ubo. Then came the day when I was focused working on these books in one room of our large house, and in another room, as I discovered around dinnertime, my son was dying.

I just couldn’t bring myself to look at these two books for some time, or to enter into that same kind of headspace required, I felt, to write a novel. After a few years I picked up Deadfall and wrote a page or two, put it aside, picked it up again, trying to ease back into it. Then one summer I wrote the entire “King of the Cats“section, put it aside again, returned to it, changed some of the characterizations, refined some of the writing, put it aside. This went on for years. The positive thing, I think, is I became a much better writer over the course of those years, so that it’s a much better book because of the delay.

Ubo will be finished too, eventually, if I live long enough. But it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted, and even without the associations regarding its composition, it’s not a pleasant piece to work on. How did your conception of the novel change between the idea in your head and getting it all out onto the page?

Steve Rasnic Tem: I try not to let things solidify too much in my head, or even in an outline, because I really believe that storytelling happens on the page, listening to the characters, and letting them tell you what their story is and what the true connections are. You can prepare the form of the piece, and you can front load ideas about theme and imagery and how you want this journey to go, but you have to be ready to jettison any of it if your characters tell you to. The character of Jacob the caretaker was the most dramatic change. He kept telling me, “Look, I’m not southern,” and finally I listened to him.

And the hotel on the page became vaster, more complicated, far more mysterious the longer I worked on it, and far beyond anything I had initially imagined for it.

The actual structure of the novel, however, ended up to be pretty much as I originally conceived it. What parts of the novel were the most pleasure to write?

Steve Rasnic Tem: Writing about the hotel’s infrastructure — the electrical and heating systems, the plumbing, thinking about how such a place must be maintained — turned out to be surprisingly fun. Particularly because the more detail I added, the more evocative and strange it all became. And I felt that all these details only encouraged more “filling in the blank” activity on the part of the readers. I really felt like I’d latched onto the perfect metaphor allowing me to go beyond anything I’d ever done with setting before. I could have written several hundred more pages just on the internal and administrative workings of the hotel. Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?

Steve Rasnic Tem: As long as you maintain that sense that this strange story is somehow an analogue for some non-obvious, hard-to-grasp human truth or function, it can’t be “too weird” in my opinion. As long as it addresses that kind of realism I think you’re on safe ground.

But this isn’t mass audience material, except under rarified circumstances. The weirder a piece is, the less commercial it’s going to be, generally speaking. You will lose readers along the way as you up the level of strangeness, and as you up the level of discomfort. And there will always be some who can’t tolerate it at all, who will find it self-indulgent and a waste of time. Who just won’t “get it,” no matter what you do. If you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?

Steve Rasnic Tem: I wonder if anyone is overlooked these days, what with all the small presses constantly reviving writers from complete obscurity, elevating them to the point of, well, modest obscurity. There are writers I think might sell better in my ideal vision of the world, but I guess we’re talking about this world. But I’ll mention Rachel Pollack, and mention in particular Unquenchable Fire, and her run as writer for DC’s Doom Patrol. Her work is a rather unique combination of shaministic and fantastic literature. And I like the fact that her human characters are so interesting and appealing, but that most people reading her work would find them completely alien, to their experience at least. A close second would be Eric P McCormack, in particular The Paradise Motel, whose work reminds me of Charles Williams in its strange, dream-like qualities. Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?

Steve Rasnic Tem: This is always an interesting question. I’ve often wondered, what if the interviewee were to answer with something seemingly conventional, like “A Farewell to Arms” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”? What would that say about the author?

For me — probably the absolute weirdest would have to be Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, but the text for that is a made-up, indecipherable language — and I had to read a friend’s, not being able to afford my own copy.. As for “readable” fiction, it would depend on the stage of my life when I read them. There’s Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” which would be the single most influential short story on me as a writer. There’s Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, which thrilled me in college. And then Calvino’s early work, t‑zero, Invisible Cities, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, huge huge influences. Then if I look at more recent fiction, Michael Cisco impresses, with The Traitor certainly, or pretty much any of his others.