Interview: Rhys Hughes

“Rigour and mischief” is my motto

brutal6Rhys Hughes is a prolific Welsh writer of over thirty books, which include novels, stories, poetry, and essays. His work, tied to a planned cycle of 1,000 stories called Pandora’s Bluff, focuses on metafiction, horror, and the fantastical, often with a dose of absurdism and humor. Rhys’s stories have been praised by Weird luminaries that include Michael Cisco, Michael Moorcock, and Mark Valentine. He frequently juggles multiple ongoing projects and has plans for upcoming publications that include a sequel to Georges Bataille’s infamous The Story of the Eye and a series of linked tales about the mythical dog Cerberus. In conjunction with the recent release of his latest collection, Brutal Pantomimes from Egaeus Press, we caught up with Rhys to get his thoughts on everything from Westerns to metafiction.

WFR: What kinds of fiction or stories did you read and watch growing up? And how have your tastes changed between what originally captivated you and now, if at all?

When I was very young I mainly watched films. I loved adventure stories, anything about exploration, lost civilisations, quests, dangerous voyages, daring escapes, sword fights, living skeletons, dinosaurs, all that sort of thing, much of which had its ultimate basis in Jules Verne, Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, as well as in myths and legends. My favourites included Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, Jack the Giant Killer, The Valley of Gwangi, The Land that Time Forgot, The Golden Voyage of Sindbad. I also enjoyed non-fantastical historical films if they featured gladiators with tridents, or knights hitting each other with maces, but the sudden appearance of a bronze giant or pterodactyl always improved matters considerably for me.

Such films were my formative influence but they gave me a laughably erroneous impression of the world, for they made physical hardship and strenuous activity seem easier than they are. I assumed that exploring unknown regions of Africa in search of forgotten magic kingdoms ruled by beautiful queens and guarded by tyrannosaurs would be child’s play, and as I was a child I decided to give it a go. I decided that I could walk to Africa, build a raft when I got there, paddle it up rivers, make my own bow and arrows, fight whatever monsters needed to be fought, return rich and deliver a lecture on my discoveries at the Royal Geographical Society that would guarantee my eternal fame.

So I filled a water canteen with orange squash, put my trusty penknife in my pocket, and set off one summer morning. For about half an hour I walked through fields before bumping into a friend. He asked me for a drink because it was a warm day and I gave him my canteen. But instead of taking just a few sips, he gulped down half of it. Realising that I would never get to Africa on half rations, I went home. But I always believed I would make another attempt one day; and maybe I still carry that belief deep inside me. It’s an uncompleted task.

So the answer to your question is: films. I did read too, mainly comics and children’s books, but the books that adults owned seemed much more fascinating, yet they remained baffling and mysterious objects. I would decipher the spines as they stood on the shelves or take them down and turn the pages without understanding anything but aware that this cosmos of secrets would reveal itself to me in time. Dickens exerted a particular allure. I know of writers who were reading adult novels when they were six or seven years old but I started later than that. I was fourteen before reading became a serious pastime for me.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was my gateway into literature. It allowed me to pass into the entire universe of classic novels. My epiphany was that reading finely-crafted fiction was not only fun, educational and inspiring, but easy too, whereas I had been expecting those enigmatic objects called books to remain almost impenetrable. My progress was rapid. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace next, then Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I became a bibliophile, spending my pocket money on Penguin Classics. I’m still an adherent of Penguin Classics, but I hardly watch films of any kind these days, I don’t know why, they don’t hold my attention like they once did. My tastes have changed in many ways, but I suppose that deep down the early influences never entirely let one go. It’s a shame there are no dinosaurs in Tolstoy. More than anyone, he would have understood their hearts and minds.

WFR: What writers were your introduction to the “weird”, whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?

Poe was the first real ‘weird’ writer I ever read. I was fifteen years old at the time I discovered him and I became an instant devotee. Thanks to Poe I ended up specialising in short stories rather than novels. He was my idol and my mentor in so many ways. I desperately wanted to be a writer like him. He demonstrated how terror, panic and desperation could be handled with conscious and deliberate skill, for essentially he was an ideas writer who dealt with emotional themes, rather than an emotional writer hoping to intellectualise his material, as Lovecraft arguably was. This is not to disparage Lovecraft, but they came at the weird from different directions and Poe’s direction is more to my liking.

Poe was my model for a long time and in some ways still is. I regard him as the spiritual godfather of the modern ‘weird’ even though the best part of two centuries have passed since he lived and wrote. There’s a very odd distorted comedy in his writing too, the comedy of the absurd, which was brand new to me when I first encountered it. People often forget that he wrote ‘arabesques’ as well as ‘grotesques’. I was probably even more influenced by his weird comedies than his weird serious tales. Then when I discovered Kafka and Voltaire’s Candide I knew for certain this was the less trodden path I preferred to follow, the path of philosophical irony and menacing absurdism and offbeat logic.

A little later I discovered Ray Bradbury and he also became important to me. He’s the writer I regard as the nearest true 20th Century equivalent to Poe, in the sense of his versatility, the fact that he wrote science fiction as well as horror and fantasy, and the kind of warped comedy that seems on the surface to be light-hearted, almost homely stuff, but is founded on quite exceptional morbidity. Clark Ashton Smith is another writer I must mention as having a strong effect on me. I mustn’t forget Saki, who was another prime influence. Jack Vance too.

These were all authors I discovered before the age of 18, as I feel that after that age the rules alter somehow, that while we may be powerfully influenced and inspired by new literary discoveries in our conscious minds, on a deeper level we are less scathed. The authors I most admire and wish to emulate, Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Vian, are those I really only got to grips with in my twenties and thirties, and even though I always cite them as my major literary influences I suspect they float and drift on the magma of the older influences like unstable tectonic plates, ready to submerge at any moment.

WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? If someone tells you something you’ve written is “weird” is it usually a compliment?

There absolutely is such a thing as too weird. It is anything you find too odd for your own taste at that particular time. Herman Melville seemed impossibly weird to me when I tried to read his sentences when I was too young for him. Now I appreciate his genius. Salman Rushdie, no less, a wonderful writer who can be very weird, if not too weird, described some of Donald Barthelme’s stories as being “too weird” while acknowledging him as one of his favourite writers.

I can guess which stories Rushdie is alluding to, but without those particular stories maybe the remainder of Barthelme wouldn’t be as good as it is. It might be that the ‘too weird’ aspect of him was necessary for the rest to be what it was. One of my favourite short story writers, Gabriel Josipovici, can often seem too weird, although the pieces in question are still beautiful and might be so because they are too weird. When we find something ‘too weird’ it could mean not that we are not ready for it but that we fear it’s already beyond us, that we missed the opportune moment when it would have been just right, that we have lost its essence. This is pure speculation and maybe not helpful.

People are always telling me that my stories are “weird” and certainly I don’t regard it as an insult. Nor do I regard it as a compliment. It’s just a label and we have to put up with labels in this world because we have no other choice. Even the condition of “being unlabelled” is a label. The fact is that an author shouldn’t try to control the reactions of readers or be in any way upset by whatever those reactions turn out to be. A fiction is an offering to the reader and if they don’t like it that’s a shame but it’s their right and their business. And yes I have been told that I am “too weird”. I can’t argue with sincere readers because there is nothing to argue about. As for the works that I personally find “too weird”, I’ll say that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Julian Rios’ Larva: A Midsummer Night’s Babel fall into this category, but I love them both. Their “too weird” aspects are rich language and rhythm resources to be mined.

WFR: How would you describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words?

Rigour and mischief” is my motto. I ought to have these words printed in tiny letters somewhere on the title page of my books as a declaration of intention and achievement. The mischief part is my love of playfulness, tricks, games and puzzles. By rigour I mean that my stories must always be logically constructed and this logic should be competent and effective, it should be right. This doesn’t mean that the logic has to be the empirical logic of everyday causality. There are other logics. The logic of my tales can equally well be that of ideas-association or word allusion or it might be that the content is entirely determined and focussed by the form of the work, for experimentation with inspiring form seems to have sadly gone out of fashion at the present, but I still employ it to assemble frameworks that generate stories that probably wouldn’t come into existence without such a formal approach. This is the method of my ethic and aesthetic, but the question remains why I wish to write?

Why do I continue to create work after producing so many stories over so many years? Now I might say that I wish to push the boundaries and to inspire in unexpected ways, to simultaneously satirise and make a serious contribution to this kind of literature, to be amusing, original, unique, but when I began, I just had a simple urge to express creativity on the page. I wanted to exercise my imagination in order to strengthen it, and I hoped there would be readers who would read me, but that was only a hope, not an essential criterion for my writing. Yet that was the time in my writing career when I would have been most responsive to feedback or criticism, and I would surely have changed my style, my themes, anything at all, in accordance with the opinions of readers.

But I had no readers. I kept my writings to myself for years. I evolved in an insular manner, and this had advantages and disadvantages. I wasn’t shepherded along orthodox routes towards the tastes of the average reader but went my own way. I was tailored only by myself, so understanding of normal standards wasn’t reinforced but self-assurance was. I became my own motive force. I wonder what kind of writer I might be if I had joined writing groups, mixed with other beginners striving in the same way, if those early efforts had been read and commented on. I certainly wouldn’t be the kind of writer I now am, but whether I would be better, worse or differently the same, I really can’t say.

WFR: Older story forms, such a fairy tales, myths, fables, and the like seem to find their way into a number of your stories to various degrees. Can you describe what you see as the role of these story forms when they interact with the modern fantastical or weird tale? Is there a relationship between the appropriation of these older forms and your interest in using metafiction in some of your stories?

Contrary to the dictums of all, or at least most, creative writing class rules I actually prefer telling to showing, and I have always been this way, and these older forms you mention, such as fables, myths, legends, tend to tell rather than show, but do so in a special way that is very immediate, more intense than most kinds of showing, even though the point of the alleged superiority of showing over telling is that showing is more immediate and intense. Well, no, not always. It might often or mostly be on the page, but only there, not in the actual experience of the tale as it’s told, absorbed or redeemed. What I mean by this is that many of the older forms originally were intended as tools of a communal experience that took place around a campfire, for instance, or else formed part of some oral bonding, putting a child to bed with a fairy story. The mode of telling was the experience as much as any evoked in the tale itself. The person receiving the story was in two settings at the same time, aware of the environment that framed the fiction no less than events inside the frame.

This is unlike modern readers who seek and attain total immersion in a sprawling fantasy epic, who yearn to hermetically seal themselves in that imaginary world and forget about the chair they are sitting in, the room in which the chair is situated, the house, the world. Such immersion is itself a fable, a fairy tale, always an illusion. When we most feel a fiction might be true, when we are most lost inside it and it becomes most real, we lose the truths and realities of the act of reading, which are that while framed by the world, almost in parody the fiction is framed by us. This is why I say that telling can be more direct than showing, and if the old forms do still have a function in contemporary weird fiction, it’s at least partly that they give us this double existence, the superimposed awareness of the tale of the writer and our own tale, that of the reader.

This relates to metafiction in that metafiction wants precisely the same thing, for the outside world to be part of the story, for the mirrors of the outside to be facing those of the inside, to create a corridor to infinity that is really a loop. Consider the most interesting weird work coming out of Africa in recent times. I’m thinking of Mia Couto, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Dambudzo Marechera and others. With these writers there seems to be no distinction between telling and showing, no false dichotomy. When they are telling they also are showing, with a luminescent purity, and when showing they are telling in rich vibrant tones.

WFR: Are there any styles or genres that interest you creatively that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore? If not, what are some other ways in which you challenge yourself with respect to your work?

I ought to challenge myself more than I do. I am acutely aware that I have already reached that stage where I am failing to challenge myself every time I start to write a new story. There is always the peril for a writer of reaching the peak of their potential and then continuing down the other side without realising the summit has been attained. One of the reasons I always planned to write exactly 1000 stories and no more was to control this journey to some extent, to give it a definite destination, one I never really thought it would reach, but at least to reduce my chances of fading away like a whimper to nothingness.

But yes, there are genres I still plan to attempt. I want to write some kind of Western one day but it will be more like a displaced Welsh Don Quixote than a typical Western. When I was younger I wanted to try my hand at everything equally, science fiction, horror, adventure, sword and sorcery, avant-garde, historical, comedy. Then I acquired a reputation as a humorous writer and I did veer deeper into that definition of my own free will. But comedy is only one small aspect of life and it limits as much as it liberates, so one absolutely must resist the temptation to settle in one’s nook, on the padded sub-genre, dozing.

WFR: Are the stories in Brutal Pantomimes connected to your stated plan to create a grand cycle of interconnected pieces? If so, can you tell us a bit about how they fit in? If not, was there a particular purpose behind the departure from that cycle?

All my work is connected to my grand cycle of interconnected pieces, even though I have written and published stories that aren’t connected. What this means is that I will still find a way to work them in somehow. The whole thing must be engineered well, so there will be lots of minor adjustments as I go along, and presumably major adjustments at the end, if the very end is ever reached. The stories in this new book are part of the cycle but not in any special way. The idea is that although all the parts are connected somehow, the connections aren’t essential to the reading of the tales as they are. They have to be standalone stories too; otherwise I have failed in my intentions and duty.

I selected stories of mine that hadn’t yet been published in book form and submitted them to my publisher, who then picked the ones he liked best. My selection was nearly random, but it did contain two stories I was particularly keen to see published in a book, ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ and ‘The Impossible Inferno’, and I was glad my publisher chose these among the final pieces to include in the collection. ‘The Impossible Inferno’ was the 500th story I wrote and I tried to make a special effort when writing it, to heighten the entire experience, so I worked very feverishly on it, and I regard it as one of my best fictions to date. But are writers the best judges of their work? Almost never, I suspect.