Steve Duffy (1963 — ) is a contemporary British writer who has lived in Norfolk and London, but is currently living and working on the North Wales coast. He is a recipient of the International Horror Guild award for the story “The Rag-and-Bone Men” and has published two short story collections, Tragic Life Stories and The Moment of Panic. Duffy’s work has appeared in several year’s best anthologies. “In the Lion’s Den” (2009), the story we selected for The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is one of those most difficult of weird fictions to write: a tale in which references to modern technology add to rather than detract from the rising sense of unease. We recently interviewed Duffy about weird fiction via email… - The Editors
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?
Steve Duffy: Though we didn’t have shelves full of books, exactly, I was taught to read before I ever set foot in school, and I was encouraged to make full use of the town’s lending library. Which I absolutely did – during the holidays I’d take out two or three books a day. But there was one book in particular, a paperback anthology belonging to my sister, that I did find lying around the house, and I’m sure it was hugely influential on my development as a reader, and later a writer. That was the Second Fontana Book Of Great Ghost Stories, edited by Robert Aickman. Not only did that introduce me to the man himself via “The Inner Room” (still one of my favourite Aickman stories), but also classics of the genre like Bierce’s “The Damned Thing”, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover”, Poe’s “The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar”, and Edith Wharton’s “Afterwards”. (Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey” is in there too. It’s in every other anthology you read, actually, but that’s where I read it first.) So anyway, if there was a Second Book Of, I thought, there has to be a First out there… and maybe even a Third… and I just took it from there, really. I still have shelves full of cheap paperback anthologies that I bought when I was a schoolkid. Actually – I can confess to this now – I’d quite often play truant from school, go and buy a book from the second-hand stall in the old covered market, and spend the rest of the day reading in the town’s Floral Hall, which was like this enormous glazed hothouse filled with palm trees and lush vegetation, right there on the seafront. I’d find a bench where no one could see me, in among the tropical flora – it was a great place to read weird fiction.
In terms of specific authors, a very important part of my development was discovering Alan Garner. I loved how books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service and Red Shift were filled with all the fantasy and magic you found in Tolkien, while being set in places that were absolutely real and convincing – places you actually knew, within half-an-hour’s drive of Manchester where the family came from, or near by our new home in North Wales. I still have a fondness for weirdness that takes place in demonstrably real surroundings – it’s partly why I never really got into high fantasy beyond The Lord Of The Rings. Lots and lots of others, of course, but I still think Garner is something unique and special, a real English one-off.
WFR.com: Any weird writer or artist you’re particularly fond of you think gets overlooked?
Duffy: I could probably namecheck Aickman again here, because I suspect that outside the genre his name still isn’t known as well as I think it ought to be. In my personal definition of the Weird – yours may vary – Thomas Pynchon occupies a central position, and I do feel he’s overlooked, probably through this reputation he has for unreadability, which I disagree with fundamentally. I mean, if you can’t struggle through The Crying Of Lot 49, say, then you just aren’t trying hard enough. But again, discovering Pynchon in my late teens was pivotal for me, along with J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs and the rest of those literary outlaws. Angela Carter, too – she absolutely took my breath away, and still does. Michel Tournier, Robert Coover, Flannery O’Connor, Flann O’Brien … they all expanded my definitions of what could be Weird, over and above the more traditional writers in the field, like Shirley Jackson or Fritz Leiber. Whose books I was still devouring at a steady rate, by the way.
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?
Duffy: Is it? I’m not sure! Maybe it’s best to take it as a compliment, and then get out of there before they can qualify it. Or disabuse you of that notion.
“Too weird”? Well, I suppose for people who don’t have either a grounding in the field, or the innate ability to suspend disbelief, a story could certainly be too weird. It’s not a metric I really use – I’ll probably use different criteria when deciding if a story is satisfying or otherwise.
WFR.com: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and does it matter to you?
Duffy: If we were doing Venn diagrams, then I suppose there would be a certain overlap between those two sets. Even a “traditional” (and by implication “cosy”) writer such as M.R. James can work in some quite vivid – actually quite nasty in some cases – physical effects. But it is certainly possible to write weird without writing horror, and vice versa. Stephen King gives us the ascending scale horror – terror – awe, and while you might not want to make a hierarchical distinction – horror being somehow less “worthy” than terror, etc – you can still appreciate that in each case slightly different emotions are being evoked.
To tell the truth, I really don’t sweat the difference. Even if I’m writing with a definite market in mind, I like to follow my instincts a bit. It seems to pay off in terms of the results – while I usually know in broad terms where a story’s going, sometimes it’s hard to know the route it’s going to take. “The Lion’s Den” would be a case in point.
WFR.com: Are there particular weird influences you care to point to in terms of your own work?
Duffy: In amongst the gazillions of books and stories I’ve read since age three (a few of which I’ve already mentioned), I’ve come across a handful of writers who have had a profound effect on both the way I read, and the way I write. In terms of the latter, Peter Straub would certainly be one of these: what a joy he was to discover. Aickman is definitely another. Between the two of them, and a bunch of stuff by the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, T.E.D. Klein and Karl Edward Wagner, I sort of decided there was a viable way forward when it came to the Weird; so then it was hugely encouraging to discover that lots and lots of people were already blazing a trail ahead of me. A long way ahead of me. I’m honoured to call some of those guys friends.
WFR.com: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Duffy: This is a deceptively awkward question to answer. It’s partly, I think, because writing the Weird has certain difficulties in common with writing good comedy. Just as humour is notoriously subjective, so is that sense of the weird, or the numinous, or whatever the hell it is you’re trying to evoke. Miss that mark by a whisker, and the clunk of the whole godforsaken project hitting the floor is audible for miles around. You can actually trace this difficulty by reading through the oeuvre of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, who aims for some hugely ambitious targets, and of course for the most part he succeeds. But when he doesn’t, you just cringe, because when you’re that ambitious, any miss might as well be a mile.
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? Was there a temptation to give away more in the “Lion’s Den”?
Duffy: Not always the toughest in terms of the way the story develops, I think; but yes, certainly, it is something you have to try very hard to get as right as you can. We’re back to that “all or nothing” thing we talked about just now – if a story fails, it may well be because you haven’t properly sold the denouement, or done enough groundwork to render it acceptable within the context of the story. That’s if the denouement is in fact a reveal, of course! Robert Aickman had some truly magnificent deferred reveals – sometimes all the way deferred, so that you were never quite sure what was going on. I am totally in awe of anyone who can successfully pull off that sort of approach. It’s like that thing in Nietzsche: “Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet as long as the melody has not reached its end, it also hasn’t reached its goal.”
Was there a temptation to give away more in “The Lion’s Den”? Well, let’s talk about that next.
WFR.com: What kind of story was “Lion’s Den” in terms of the conception? Something you wrote all in one go, or…? And what was the hardest part to get right?
Duffy: It was a massively stubborn story, that’s what it was. I started it about the time the story itself begins: that is, the late autumn of 1999, when everyone was probably working on something or other millennial. I kind of knew the bones of the story – the setting, and how it would begin and all, and in fact the part up till the boy climbing into the lion compound I wrote more or less exactly as it appears in the finished draft. And I knew what would happen to him once he got in there. But then – huge brick wall. Beyond knowing that the consequences of this act of his would have millennial, or chiliastic, or apocalyptic or whatever the hell, overtones, I was fumbling in the dark.
In the back of my mind was some research I’d read somewhere – I made sketchy sort of notes, but didn’t cite the source, more fool me – that had to do with observations being made of the behaviour of elephants in widely scattered groups. Apparently, or so it was being claimed, these elephants, despite being separated by hundreds, even thousands of miles and having no physical contact with each other, were engaging in a series of common behaviours which were weird and atypical, and no one really knew how they were communicating. If they were communicating. They were calling these behaviour patterns – which included hostility towards man – “the elephants’ rebellion”. And there was the thing that kept me interested. Something like the idea that lies at the heart of Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds”, I suppose. Though of course that was another disincentive to writing my story – the thought that someone had already written a really great story along largely the same lines. And also, I think that at this time I was still thinking I would have to come up with a sort of plausible, if not actually prosaic, mechanism for my own animal rebellion. Basically, I was put off by the prospect of writing the exposition, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t fit in with the weird, symbolic gesture that goes to make up the opening section.
So eight years later, it was very much in a spirit of “what the hell” that I went back to “The Lion’s Den”, after discovering an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Elephant Crackup”. It was written by a guy named Charles Seibert, and it had a section about the so-called elephants’ rebellion. And that gave me the kick up the arse I so thoroughly needed.
And here’s a funny thing. Once I started writing – I actually had to convert the story to a new file format, it was that old – but once I started writing, it was like picking up the day after I’d left off, back in 2000, 2001. I just faced forward and wrote away, sort of trusting my instincts and simply writing my way out of wherever the day’s work had led me. And in a very short period of time I had a first draft. Then, when Des Lewis put out a call for stories that might (or might not, in Des’ cheerful way) have something to do with a zoo, I gave it a polish or two, and submitted it with what I thought were realistically low expectations. Des accepting it came as a genuine shock – but not as big as the shock I got a year later, when it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, that I promise you. Still can’t believe that one.
So what was the hardest part, you asked? I suppose the hardest part was trusting my instincts – not feeling constrained by someone else’s treatment of a similar theme, and especially not feeling constrained to explain everything. There’s such a wonderful feeling of freedom once you realise, actually, screw it – you don’t have to explain exactly why this happened! It only has to make sense in the terms of the story itself! Coming back to something that Robert Aickman wrote: “I believe in what the Germans term Ehrfurcht: reverence for things one cannot understand.”
WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?
Duffy: Gaaaah! Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. There. I purposely said the first book that came into my mind, and didn’t spend any time thinking about it. So it must be true.