Performance, Grottos, and Nameless Drifters: Interviewing David Leo Rice on Surrealism

This summer, I met David Leo Rice on the edge of the Gowanus Canal for tacos. Within five minutes of conversation, he was already explaining the ideologies of a Massachusetts evangelical preacher. Rice has an energy to his walk and talk the way young geniuses have. He is living in Brooklyn in his 30s, writing weird fiction after coming from New England, although he has never thought of himself as a neo-Lovecraft.

Rice has published three “seasons” of novels on his Tumblr in a project called A Room in Dodge City, the first season of which was released as a paperback by Alternating Current Press this year. His upcoming short story collection, Normal Stigmata, contains pieces previously published in Black Clock, Hobart, The Collagist, and more. None of it is close to normal. In Rice’s work, everyone encountered on the road acts disposable to some greater cause, suffering and reality become insignificant to the protagonists, and murder investigations either don’t exist or have literal puppets as their prime suspects. Stories take place around mass graves, empty homes, sour hotels, and religious meetings across the United States and Europe. Rice’s works-in-progress only continue these trends. We sat down at Parklife, a taqueria in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, to discuss Rice’s arcane education, visualizations of the grotesque, and morbid curiosity with the wilds of Germany.

Weird Fiction Review: In your stories, characters are pushed into circumstances, often terrifying situations, with rare pushback. Why are they so accepting of horror?

David Leo Rice: Maybe because they know it’s right, in an underlying sense. They aren’t being necessarily oppressed, but perhaps it’s just the nature of the world revealing itself to them. It’s like removing the face of a robot and seeing the gears inside: they understand it’s terrifying, but they aren’t going to deny what it is. At some point, people realize there’s nothing they can do. There are forces that guide your life that you can flail against but not defeat. Maybe I’m like Lovecraft in this respect.

WFR: Going off that, there’s this constant presence in your stories. It has immense power, but it is never named, and always just out of reach, always hard to put your finger on. This power is constantly affecting character actions and motivations. Is this one of the Eldritch forces that guides them?

DLR: I’d say it’s partially the world, partially the world-spirit — the Weltgeist. A Western religion might call it God, Vandermeer might call it a hyperobject, but I think all of those are necessarily imprecise ways of getting at the world as one collective entity, something that cannot be gotten at because the effort to get at it is part of it. I don’t want it to seem like my characters are insignificant, I want the best for them, but I do see them in the grips of things that are beyond them (whether internally or externally). Sometimes there’s tension between what you say you want and what you really want. But even if it’s internal, that’s still the Weltgeist, because we all embody the world, and the world acts through us while we inhabit it.

WFR: Was this a conscious choice?

DLR: Well, not really. I think great forces speak through you. I think you can consciously shape the architecture of your idea, you can try to contain it in a way that someone else can perceive and appreciate, but you can’t change that original idea. Murakami talks about this through the metaphor of digging for oil. You can decide how to process the oil, but not that it’s there.

WFR: Why do a serialized novel, posting chapter-like vignettes on Tumblr every few weeks? How is the process different for such a fantastical work?

DLR: I only started the series as a breath of fresh air. Before, I was working in Berlin on a thousand-page manuscript of a book called Angel House that was locked in my hard-drive, and managing that was a horrible experience. Angel House is about a Satanic character named Professor Squimbob who is continuously crossing an inland sea on an ark called Angel House. Wherever he docks, a town made of fungus blooms, full of people with memories of always having lived there. The story is both a coming-of-age saga about two kids from one of these towns, and Squimbob’s struggle with his absent Master, whom he is supposed to deliver children to.

Coming from such a massive project, Dodge City was a way of letting myself have fun, of not having a boulder of a book on my back. The fundamental rule I set myself was that each vignette would be short and without peripheral material — no notes or sketches. Both projects are about the same themes, especially small American towns that believe they’re at the center, rather than at the edge of the universe. They’re both solipsistic realms.

Back to the original question, Calvino said that lightness— “the subtraction of weight” — should be an important element of literature. That’s not to say that books shouldn’t be serious, but just that I tried to write Dodge City with a quickness and humor that was maybe lacking in the other book. This was the first time that I let myself have fun writing.

WFR: You’ve written Trump into your newest season of A Room in Dodge City. Can you talk about this decision and what themes you’re trying to explore?

DLR: I’ve been thinking about what happens when reality rips down the center, in this case into the world that wanted Trump and the world that didn’t. Does that mean that there is a larger reality outside of both of or could there really now be two separate, unconnected realities? Could the climate in one reality be changing, but not in the other? I don’t know what will happen; we’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t thought about this question in a literal sense until recently, it’s always been a theoretical idea, but now it’s pressing towards nonfiction. Is it the utopian dream to just have different realities, where the truth someone believes in one is the absolute truth?

I started the third season after the election, but it’s not about Trump per se. It’s about fascism in general, and how sometimes in history the dark spirit of a nation flares up, and moves very quickly from the realm of myth into the realm of daily experience. This spirit is probably ever-present, it just sometimes goes into remission, as it did under Obama. It can always be called back up by someone sinister enough to use it as a road to power.

In the first Room in Dodge City, there’s the First Dodge City Genocide, but now the town has a new mayor who’s trying to start the Second Dodge City Genocide, which he wants to be called the First. Naturally, the first step is denying that the First Dodge City Genocide ever took place, so his can be number one. I’m smiling at this scheme because it’s a particular type of dark Jewish humor that I think comes from our innate sense that horror and humor can’t be separated. It’s not either/or; it’s always both.

David Leo Rice at Parklife in Brooklyn

WFR: Your work has a hyperspecificity to it, but then you leave so many ideas and incredible worldbuilding in every paragraph, especially of Dodge City, it feels almost like it’s there as a thought- and story-lubricant you’re using to skid across. Do you have plans to touch this other material later, or does it just work as a lubricant/scaffolding?

DLR: I hadn’t thought about it in that way. I like the sense that the protagonist is always missing more than he perceives. I’m trying to balance the combination of over-saturation and impoverishment of detail that we experience in our daily lives. My characters are just trying to go on living, no matter how bizarro the world gets around them. Some people would go into all the doors I present, but I wouldn’t, so as of now my characters don’t either. They’re trying to minimize their own confusion in worlds that dwarf them.

DLR [unprompted]: I often think of writing in terms of theater, especially a puppet show. I do animation too, and I love that surreal/grotesque world of the nickelodeon, or the peep show. In my writing, I have props appear on stage and it’s unclear where they come from. That’s a theatrical, circus experience. If a clown pulls chickens out of a bag, you don’t ask where he bought the chickens. To me, picking up a book is the same thing as entering a funhouse: you’re guided into a heightened world where rules still apply, but not the same rules as those outside. Bruno Schulz once said that, “In the ideal theater, there would be a different actor for every gesture.” I love this idea of adding new puppets, or augmenting old puppets with new arms. I like the idea of the grotesque as being literally a grotto or a hole that you look into, like a Joseph Cornell shadowbox.

WFR: How has animation changed the way you approach storytelling?

DLR: I like the illusion in animation that the creatures in the world are doing what they want, not what someone else wants them to do. Because in animation, the director has to be much more stringent and fascistic than in live-action filmmaking. Animated characters have no agency – they don’t even exist as moving entities – but watching animation feels even more voyeuristic than film does. The illusion that we’re witnessing the inner lives of inanimate objects while they think no one’s watching relates directly back to how I look at the grotesque: the shadowbox/grotto, inhuman spaces that humans are granted access to.

WFR: Your work has yet to appear in Black Static, Shadows & Tall Trees, Shock Totem, or really any of the “traditional” genre magazines. Instead, I’ve seen your work in places such as Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, or New Haven Review. Why did you choose those places for your audience, and how does it feel to focus on those sorts of magazines?

DLR: I guess my first comment is that my tastes have always skewed literary. My mentor is a great capital H‑horror writer named Jack Ketchum, and I have a lot of hard conversations about genre with him. I’ve learned a lot from him, but my portal into the fiction publishing world was Brian Evenson. I read his stories at a crucial time I guess, and just decided to send my stuff to everywhere he had sent his, and maybe that’s a reason for my strange bibliography. I tend to think of horror as an ingredient/mode, rather than an overall genre to work in.

WFR: Do you think your career has been helped by the acceptance of the Weird into pop culture? With shows like Twin Peaks, Fargo, and The Leftovers in their third surreal seasons, the popularity of video games, and just current events?

DLR: I think it’s helped me. There’s a whole generation of people who were raised on David Lynch who are now finding their way into society in different ways. Not just him of course, but Cronenberg, Jodorowsky, Clive Barker, the usual suspects. There’s a way in which some spirit that was haunting the ‘80s and ‘90s is now reaching adulthood. I’m definitely a child of that, whether I was conscious of it or not.

TV has probably helped. We’re in a moment in which there is greater opening and willingness to see genre boundaries dissolve. People are less determined to force things to be one category or another. I can’t be anything but hopeful. This energy has to be working for other authors finding popularity—The Southern Reach is a great example.

WFR: Let’s talk about your Harvard education. I believe you majored in Occult Studies and minored in German. There’s no way you won’t have an interesting story about your time in college.

DLR: It’s funny you call it “Occult Studies.” I wanted to name my major that, but one day I was given a stern talking-to by my British medievalist advisor, who warned that if I named it Occult Studies, I would get emails from people who would genuinely scare me. He was serious, so I changed the name to “Esoteric Studies: Mysticism and Modernism in Western Thought.” But I always think about what those emails would’ve been, and from whom.

Anyway, a lot of my studies were looking at modernism and modernist figures — Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Freud — and asking if you could see a resonance with deranged medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart, Heinrich Suso, and Jakob Böhme in their thought and work. My answer was yes. Those ideas were either explicit with someone like Yeats, or implicit, like the medieval explosion of demonic thought speaking through later writers like Daniel Paul Schreber. What an exorcist would call a demon and Freud would call a neurosis are, I think, the same thing. Alan Moore understands this entirely in From Hell. I was always interested in the perceptions of these labels, rather than what was going on behind the scenes in the brain.

Studying German was different. In part, I wanted to understand German Jews. I wanted to read Kafka and Freud in German, and I wanted to see it as a language of Jewish thought, not only anti-Jewish thought. In season three of Dodge City, I also hope to explore one theme I was studying in German: the connection between fascism and creativity. My favorite bodies of literature (German and Japanese) came from incredibility fascistic cultures. America too. Anything bad you want to say about America, you can’t say that we haven’t produced some interesting, larger-than-life characters. When the same city in roughly the same era can produce Thomas Pynchon and Donald Trump, that’s amazing. There’s some sense that cultures that are rife with conflict and self-hate produce the most interesting work.

My senior thesis for my major was about horror in the Woods in German literature, starting from the Grimm Brothers and ending with Thomas Bernhard. I tried to show the forest as a physical space, a setting you can map or cut down, while the Woods is a state of mind. The Woods is when it becomes haunted, or when you get truly lost, and perhaps only then find yourself as you are, not as you’d like to be.

This all relates to the German return to the primal. In the Romantic era, the German nationalistic spirit was very opposed to the French. Post-Revolution France wanted to say, “we’re the descendants of Rome. We’re the cosmopolitan center of democracy, liberal ideology, etc.” The Germans said, “we’re the descendants of Greece, which connotes the Wild Grove, Arcadia, the Bower, the Pagan Sabbath, etc.” I see the danger in this line of German thinking, but it’s fascinating to me. Others have written a lot about France, but I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Germany was wilder, more savage, and just newer. Perhaps more naïve too, less worldly. This is obviously true of America as well.

WFR: Let’s talk about setting. A vast, vast majority of all the scenes you write take place in what Michel Foucault would define as a heterotopia. These are places where time and space are shifted, rituals are required for entry or exit, and a depth of relationships exist just below the surface. Your have scenes in school gyms, bus stations, comedy clubs, lakeside resorts, film sets, hospitals, and more. It’s time to see where your heterotopic preferences lie in a game of Heterotopia vs. Heterotopia.

Choose your favorite: a blue-collar cafeteria or a run-down carnival?

DLR: I always try to place my work on intersecting axes of strangeness and sadness. The cafeteria has a pregnant, heavy sadness to it. I picture old men having soup in the middle of the day, alone. The carnival is strangeness: colorful and creepy. As a subject to study and write about, I’d go with carnival.

WFR: Transatlantic cruiser or boarding school?

DLR: Oh man. Transatlantic cruiser. All heterotopias seem to have this summer camp vibe, a place where there’s an unnaturally intimate collection of strangers. Boarding schools have that quality but in a more banal way since they’re ritualized and baked-in. The cruiser seems richer with mystery, and I’m interested in the ocean.

WFR: Isolated research facility or failing utopian community?

DLR: Failing utopian community for sure.

On this thought: one thing I’m curious about in heterotopias is the distinction between seediness and sleaziness. And there should be a distinction. When someone is sleazy, you instantly understand what they’re trying to get. Think of a Vegas casino, a music producer, Trump, characters defined by greediness and base animal power. But if something’s seedy, then it has unrealized potential, literally like seeds that are languishing and might be about to sprout. That’s a more liminal category that could easily tip into a surprise, or violence. Think of the historical Lower East Side, or a man waiting for a call in a motel room. A circus in July is sleazy, but a circus in October is seedy.

Since life is only perceptible through an interruption of habit — a moment in which we sense that something’s going on but we don’t know what — heterotopias can provide this great observational window. And I like to think about character in those spaces. When people are stuck on an airplane, talking to a stranger they know they’ll never see again, are they the most or the least like themselves? Bar atmospheres, or convention atmospheres (like AWP), or even those German stories about the Woods, get to this question too. So, failing utopian community. But the isolated research facility makes me think of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, which I love.

WFR: What is your technique to take your stories, worlds, and logics to their extremes? You do it so frequently, I’m curious how you run up against boundaries.

DLR: I’m always trying to have a push/pull between chaos and restraint. You’re kinda supposed to be a bull in a china shop while writing, smashing your own taboos and inhibitions whether they have to do with content or style. The simplest way to approach this is to ask, “how can I make myself uncomfortable?” Because if you can do that you’re being honest, and honesty is a lot better than saying, “oh this is really gonna get some people.” I have nothing against Chuck Palahniuk, but there’s something a little calculated about him pressing others’ buttons. He’s always entertaining, but I don’t always feel like he’s taking risks. A lot of the struggle in writing comes from breaking everything and then putting it together in a neat and competent form for presentation.

WFR: Why is there no good sex in your stories?

DLR: It’s not that I find sex to be inherently terrifying, it’s that good sex is hard to describe, and also grammatically inert to a degree. There’s nothing to say about it since it aspires to be a nonverbal experience. So yes, by omission I might only have bad/strange sex in my stories. I’ll have to think about that.

WFR: What’s the next project you’re working on?

DLR: I’m working on a few different things, including a novella called The Emergency Hotel. It’s about a dissolute comedian who has had a nervous breakdown on stage. To repair his career, his agent puts him on the “Inland Circuit,” which has him performing in Dodge-City-like towns. He ends up in Butte, Montana, where there’s been a mass shooting just as he’s arriving. He’s holed up in a Holiday Inn connected to the mall where the shooting is playing out on live television. It turns out that this is a place where the shooting happens over and over with no one to stop it. Eventually industries pop up, like a different TV channel that starts auctioning the meat of the dead, which the comedian ends up buying because he’s stuck in the hotel and room service has run out. That’s the premise, and I’m having a swell time seeing where it’ll take me.