That Awful Dissonance

An Interview with Clint Smith

Ghouljaw & Other Stories is one of the finest debut collections I’ve had the pleasure to read this year, every bit as impressive as Jason A. Wyckoff’s Black Horse (2012) and Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters (2013), sharing with these works a breadth of originality that makes it required reading for both readers and writers of Weird Fiction. There is a deep literary and genre feel to Ghouljaw & Other Stories, and its author, Clint Smith, has more than succeeded in crossing the streams, as it were, to fashion something profoundly unique. The author, a bright new talent in the field, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.

Weird Fiction Review: What dClint Smithraws you to the writing game, and Weird Fiction in general?

Clint Smith: Saul Bellow wrote that a writer is a reader moved to emulation, and like many writers (I’d venture to guess) I fell in love with the act of reading before I started making (amateurish) attempts at penning anything considered “work.” Around that same period, I’d exhausted myself (and quite frankly lost intrinsic interest) in dabbling with other artistic mediums — illustration and music among them. I saw writing and poetry as solo crafts, ones that really spoke to those with “loner” tendencies (though this notion is a bit misleading, as the craft is dependent upon human engagement for the whole damn thing to work). Writing was simultaneously solitary and humanistically reciprocal.

The gravitation toward Weird Fiction was, and still is, a pretty natural compulsion. Though, I’d have to say that — owing both how I was regionally socialized (rural legends, agrarian ghost stories) and some of the aesthetic choices I was enamored with as a boy — I am more or less hardwired to literarily drift in the direction of the “weird.” To put another way, the essence of “weird” and “strange” is the taproot of my artistic temperament.

WFR: When did your desire to tell stories begin, and who were some of your earliest inspirations?

CS: First, I think being read to as a small child was a tremendously indelible thing for my parents to do. Yes, when you’re little there are pictures portraying action in front of you, but when you begin developing your own day-dream narratives those layered, mental pictures begin to distort themselves and take on new shapes. One book in particular that resonates (in a multitude of ways) from my childhood is The Magical Drawings of Moony B. Finch by David McPhail (I still have the original copy and have passed on the tradition by reading to both my little ones). Eventually, the imagistic “training wheels” are removed when you move on to bigger books and begin pairing those deeply-aesthetics with black-and-white narratives.

Old radio shows, too, had a formative effect. Back when I was a kid, radio stations, late at night, would air broadcasts of old radio shows — mysteries, romances, ghost stories. I’d drift to sleep with stories and soap operas playing out in my little head. This medium of entertainment was important because, similar to reading, listeners are provided with words and action, and it’s the audiences job to do the mental illustration, to formulate images. The Shadow, Dark Fantasy, Inner Sanctum, and The Black Museum are still my favorites.

As a sort of sidebar, though I was not raised in a fundamentally religious home, it was difficult not to have some exposure to biblical texts and tales; and as a kid I confronted some inextricably disturbing horror stories and weird tales in the Bible — chief among them is the seductive betrayal, graphic torture, and revenge of Samson, along with the supernaturally subjective and prolonged abuse of Job.

Something Wicked This Way ComesBut Ray Bradbury, more than anything, stands out most prominently during those formative years. For the sake of brevity, I’ll quickly cite “I Sing the Body Electric” andSomething Wicked This Way Comes as having profound aesthetic and thematic influences. Even David Grove’s movie poster artwork for Disney’s adaptation ofSomething Wicked is vividly tattooed in my imagination with heavy ink.

The story of Something Wicked is itself entertaining, but it was only years later when I re-read the prologue — “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys” — that I was intrigued by the trick of forming images as it related to text. It was the way Bradbury captured places, people, and unfolded stories that now had my attention: “And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” Lines like this made me wonder, How the hell does a writer do that? I wanted to learn the trick, wanted to emulate a similar “illusion.”

WFR: Who are your greatest writerly influences, both past and present?

CS: I’ve mentioned Bradbury as a sort of bedrock influence, but after I began to seriously approach the craft of writing (as more of an apprentice than anything else), the authors that placed the most nascent impressions on me were Dan Simmons, Shirley Jackson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Matheson, Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles L. Grant, Lovecraft, Flannery O’Conner, and Nabokov. In particular, I’ll point to the horror and dark stories of Dan Simmons (Summer of Night, Carrion Comfort, and the short fiction in Prayers to Broken Stones) as leading influences still today. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poets Thomas Lux and Charles Simic.

As far as writers who’ve had a more contemporary influence for me — ones that I admire for their voice, style, and narrative approach — are Joe Hill, Stewart O’Nan, Norman Partridge, Benjamin Percy, and fellow Hoosiers Ben H. Winters, Michael Koryta, and Frank Bill. I’m reading Donnybrook by Bill right now. Deliciously ferocious.

WFR: In your opinion, what are the ingredients of an effective weird tale?

CS: The “weird tale” is, for me, a class that’s sustained by a deeply-threaded discordance and an impossible-to-erase echo — yes, in part owing to the single-effect that Poe discussed, but what I’m referring to is the reader becomes unsettled by the underlying approach. Maybe some key ingredients would be an element of fatalism, moral or mental deterioration (whatever requires calling into question the accuracy of perception), and maybe a satisfying though indeterminate denouement (something in the vein of classic John Carpenter films).

Joseph Conrad wrote that a writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in their work, and I think that a weird tale works if the fabric of the tale is (whether consciously or not) constructed by someone with intrinsic strangeness, someone who is literarily mercurial — a bit of a wild card. Weird tales don’t really fit in, and neither do their designers.

WFR: Are there any particular stories from the “Library of Weird Fiction” (or outside of it) which you feel are worthy of constant study?

CS: I’m certain this comes off as passé but I’ll be brief — I’ll start with Lovecraft. The first story I read of his was “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and the tale provided me with a lot of direction. From there, I would submit “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and (one of my all-time favorites) “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

Shapes of MidnightAnachronistically moving around a bit, I’d devote time to writers like Ambrose Bierce (“Beyond the Wall,” “The Spook House”) and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Mosses From an Old Manse and Twice-told Tales both have marvelous stories. It may be a lesser known name, but Joseph Payne Brennan’s collection The Shapes of Midnight was a real revelation for me, and I’d highly recommend “Canavan’s Back Yard,” “The Corpse of Charlie Rull,” and “The Horror at Chilton Castle” for those seeking satisfying tales. Robert W. Chambers (“The King in Yellow,” “The Yellow Sign”) is an outstanding practitioner, and I think any student of the “weird” would do well to examine “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (supremely sinister) by Clark Ashton Smith. “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen is indefatigably disturbing, and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from it over the years.

WFR: In the introduction to Ghouljaw, S.T. Joshi rightly commends your originality in regard to “the weird concept”. Do you fashion your tales around such concepts or do they take shape in the telling? 

CS: Really interesting question. It’s like that adage, I suppose: there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. From an external standpoint, my sensibilities have been so profoundly shaped by weird concepts (in addition to the book-based stories I grew up loving, I also relished Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, both of which are responsible for formative impressions) that it’s difficult not to confront them, in one aspect or another, as I write. And yet — though I’ve mentioned the writerly impulse of emulation — I’m more satisfied by independent assembly.

I have a profound respect for this particular genre or weird “school,” and when I begin to tread too close to what I think is predictable or cliché, I veer off in a different direction. This may cause another dilemma in the narrative, but it’s worth it to mentally construct an alternate route.

The only story I’ve consciously utilized as a sort of scaffolding is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (which it looks like I’ll discuss presently) for the piece, “The Tell-Tale Offal.”

WFR: It is evident upon reading your macabre tale “The Tell-Tale Offal” that you have spent a great deal of time in the culinary industry. Is there a correlation between fashioning fiction and food?

CS: Personally, there is a great deal of correlation. I began writing in private around the same time I enrolled in culinary school in Chicago. This was the early 2000s, and at that point I’d already been in the restaurant industry for several years. But it wasn’t until much later that I began to draw parallels between the vocations of writing and culinary arts.

More than anything, writers and chefs have to trust what is on their respective pages and plates. I rely heavily on Henry James’s sentiment that there is only one recipe: to care a great deal for the cookery. In both crafts there are totemic techniques and innumerable ingredients, but it’s how we utilize, balance, and respect those components that creates harmony and lends itself to resonance.

Whether a writer submits a manuscript from a desk, or a cook sends out a meticulously presented plate to a dining room from the kitchen, both have to deliver a satisfying message. Everything should be communicated there — the hours of practice, research, references, tradition, personality. What’s on the plate and what’s on the page should tell you the whole story.

WFR: Do you have any personal favorites among the fourteen tales which comprise Ghouljaw? If so, please describe their genesis.

CS: For the sake of sentimentality, I’d point to the titular story, “Ghouljaw.” This is one of my earliest “apprentice” pieces, and it’s the story that I supplied to S.T. Joshi the first time I met him after a lecture he’d given in Indianapolis. A few days later he contacted me about submitting another story (which ended up being “Benthos”).

To pick favorites would be “What About the Little One” for its slowly-constructed conclusion and “The Day of the Earwig” for the small tricks I attempted to imbed within the narrative.

WFR: Towns such as New Bethel and Deacon’s Creek appear in many of your stories. Are these real or imagined or a combination of both, and do you plan to create fictional havoc in these locations in the future?

CS: New Bethel is a sort of composite for the best and worst of small town life (more or less a flawed version of Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois), and sometimes the stories and psychologies seem more suited to a place that may provide hope, yet, as perception becomes distorted, may become more of a haunting environment.

But there are definitely more supernatural elements in Deacon’s Creek. I’ve always viewed Deacon’s Creek as fundamentally sinister, sort of a Midwest Bermuda Triangle for monsters.

WFR: Readers of Ghouljaw have the option of purchasing a “book soundtrack”, which contains a track for each story. How did this collaboration with Allen Kell come about?

CS: I must say that, in addition to a list of literary comrades and acquaintances, I’m profoundly fortunate to have creatively-driven friends — people I’ve known since childhood who’ve refined their skills in adulthood.

Allen is a good friend with whom I grew up. He lived in the same rural “region” as I did (we’ve heard the same ghost stories, same farmland legends), and I’d venture to say we share many of the same creative sensibilities and appreciate similar aesthetics. I’d never heard of a fiction-music collaboration, and when I began seriously tinkering with the notion, Kell was the first guy that came to mind. As it happens, Kell has been dabbling in this sort of thing as a side-project between creative bouts with his main band, Shadeland. So as grateful as I was (and am) that he agreed to this project, I think he was eager to accept the challenge for the sake of his own creative process.

WFR: Are there any current or future writing projects you wish to discuss?

CS: I’m currently completing a short stack of stories (line-editing, some narrative whittling) and drafting two longer tales (a farming-related narrative and a food-related story), one of which will be transformed into a novel.