BURNT BLACK SUNS is your fourth short fiction collection, now published in Italy from EDIZIONI HYPNOS as SOLI CARBONIZZATI; I read that BURNT BLACK SUNS is a sort of sequel to your first collection BENEATH THE SURFACE a book that found its inspiration in the works of Thomas Ligotti. Could you explain to Italian readers what are the key differences between your collections?
BURNT BLACK SUNS is a sequel only in that it returns to the more traditional weird territory that BENEATH THE SURFACE touched on. After the first book, my next two books dealt more with the strange side of horror, which is more mysterious and dreamlike, and once they were published I found myself wanting to get away from oblique stories for a while and write something different. I also found myself becoming very associated with that style of fiction and though I love it very much I think I’m a more diverse writer than it may appear, and so I also wanted to highlight a different aspect of my writing. After all, many people who were reading my work didn’t get the opportunity to read BENEATH THE SURFACE when it was first published because the company that did so when out of business a few weeks later. Those people may have never had the chance to see anything different from me.
Rectifying that seemed to be an important direction for me to take. In that sense, I was writing a sequel to the first book as a sort of return to less-oblique weird fiction. However, the two books are not otherwise related. Even the sorts of authors that inspired the stories were different. The first book owed more to Ligotti and Leiber, whereas this new book found its inspirations in Lovecraft and the classical weird. Also, where the first book is very focused on urban weirdness (inspired by authors like Campbell and Leiber) the latest book takes place in a variety of environments and styles. It’s a much more diverse book, despite having fewer stories. It puts many aspects of my work on display that could only be hinted at in my first collection.
Why you write specifically WEIRD FICTION? There is a special attraction for the genre?
I don’t really think of what I write as Weird fiction. That term is popular now, and I use it in conversations because it’s a short-hand for some readers, but it seems to me to be just another in a long line of ways used to avoid calling these sorts of stories “Horror”. Which isn’t to say I’m unaware that describing fiction as weird has a long history in criticism, only that the word was not really used with significant frequency until the latter part of the last decade when a new round of horror writers began to emerge.
But this doesn’t address your question: why do I write this sort of fiction? I’ve always been drawn to the mysteries of this world, and what lies beyond what our senses perceive. I suppose we’ve all felt at times as though we have rubbed up against something unknowable, but for me trying to understand what that unknowable could be has always been fascinating. It’s not that I believe in other worlds and forces beyond our comprehension as much as I’m interested in their hypothetical existence. I write this fiction to try to understand what its effect on us might say about who we are. Exploring the philosophical conundrum of existence’s meaning has always been far more interesting to me writing fiction designed to frighten or to gross-out. I want fiction that examines the beauty in darkness; I want fiction that puts a face on the faceless.
Reading the beautiful words by Peter Straub, in my mind one of the most important masters of contemporary horror, about “…the darkest ranges of your excellen t imagination”, a question arises: what feeds your imagination?
I don’t think any writer truly knows what feeds his or her imagination. Part of it is likely years of practice examining idle thoughts and remaining on the lookout for anything interesting that might be the basis of a story. But a lot of it comes from just reading and listening and watching. The writer’s brain is like an engine, and it needs fuel to run. This fuel comes from all sorts of sources: newspapers, radio shows, films, music, overheard conversations… the list is endless. There is some seed for a story in almost everything we encounter.
The trick is to spot that seed and plant it. It’s the only way something beautiful can bloom. I suppose if there’s one aspect that might be a magic trick, it’s the ability to take those different and disparate ideas and find connections among them that other people might not see. By uncovering enough hitherto unnoticed links, one can, with luck, write a story unlike anything by anyone else. That unique brand of tale is what separates authors from the pack. I only hope I’m able to work that magic enough to give my readers something to think about long after the story is done.
There is a story in your collection BURNT BLACK SUNS to which you are bound in a special way?
I like all the stories in the book, and I’m bound to each in its own way. Some were experiments in different sorts of story-telling, others experiments with different voices and subject matter. I ran the gamut of directions I could see for those types of weird tales. And, of course, each piece has a story behind it—the story of its creation—and in some cases that’s what connects me to the tale. This is what makes the title story perhaps the one I personally feel bound to. It was the first novella I’d ever written and took the most time and energy and blood and determination to do right. Also because I think the partially-invented mythology behind it is interesting, and the history inside the story somewhat unusual. I like to believe it’s one of those aforementioned stories that could only have been written by me, which are the best and most satisfying sorts of stories to write.
Your short story “Thistle’s Find” is a homage to H.P. Lovecraft, “Beyond The Banks of the River Seine” (R obert William Chambers). What differentiates your writing, many recurring themes in your work than the masters of the past?
The biggest difference is the modern focus on psychology that wasn’t present in the work of past writers—either because their work predates the rise of the science, or because they weren’t interested in that sort of introspection. Lovecraft, for example, was a contemporary of Freud’s, but his total disinterest in the specific human experience precluded him from using much of the famed pyschoanalyst’s work in his stories. Most contemporary writers are not only more interested in the psychological aspect, but I’d wager most readers demand it. The study of the human condition is a requisite in modern fiction, likely because our own interior lives are so unknowable that when we see it reflected back in a story we can’t help but stare. Other than the psychological aspect, perhaps where my work differs most from those past writers— and maybe even many modern and contemporary writers—is my tendency to blur ontological concerns with i ntimate portraits of broken people’s inner lives. I often aim to play on both cosmic and microcosmic scales concurrently, and at the time I started working in the field there weren’t many other writers doing something similar, or at least doing so with any great success.
“By Invisible Hands” is a homage to Thomas Ligotti. Speaking about a master of the present; what are your thoughts about his works and how influenced yours?
In many ways, just as I suspect Clive Barker single-handedly shifted the course of horror fiction in the late eighties, I also suspect Thomas Ligotti bears a lot of the responsibility for birthing what we call Weird fiction today. I don’t necessarily mean his work directly inspired all of the contemporary writers—I think the field is far too varied fo r that to be true—but the presence of his work was, in and of itself, startlingly different than what was going on in the rest of the field. And the fact that it was recognized enough for him to be included alongside the top authors at the time (in the anthology, PRIME EVIL) and be given three mass-market paperbacks to spread his fiction, suggests that a wide-enough net was thrown over the embryonic writers who would one day rise to form this renaissance to affect them. My work, at least, has been very influenced by Ligotti’s, most especially at the beginning of my career. Ligotti’s strangeness and omnipresent suspicion of reality spoke to my own questioning of the world. Though I can’t claim to subscribe to his more anti-natalist views, nor his inherent pessimism, I do find them fascinating to turn over and examine. A good deal of my first collection, BENEATH THE SURFACE, was comprised of these examinations, but I found by the time the book was done that I’d managed to burn through most of my thoughts on the subject, and returning to Ligotti-influenced stories really hasn’t held much interest to me. “By Invisible Hands” being of course the exception, but even then, though it bears many of Ligotti’s trappings, I think the story itself owes more to my own concerns that his.
You’re also a fine editor and this has been recognized with the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award in an Edited Anthology for AICKMAN’S HEIRS (Undertow Publications, 2015) an anthology of strange, weird tales by modern visionaries of weird fiction, in the milieu of Robert Aickman, the master of strange and ambiguous stories. As you say in the Introduction “This book is a sampler of how Robert Aickman’s work has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers”. No w the anthology is finalist for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Can you tell us how something about this project? Do you think there will be others, given the success also as editor?
AICKMAN’S HEIRS came about simply because I was hearing more and more writers citing Aickman’s work as an influence—something that wasn’t happening even a fe w years earlier. Aickman was a very idiosyncratic writer, and one who simply can’t be easily mimicked. His work isn’t about the use of words, but the subconscious threads that exist below the page, so writers who really learn from him likely do so in a way that doesn’t encourage pastiches. I thought it would be interesting to gather some of these writers together and see what they could do when writing a tale where Aickman was the primary influence. Happily, the book has been very well received and seems to be a relative success, and though I can’t be certain, I think and hope that success has helped draw at least some further attention to Aickman’s work. As pleased as that makes me, however, I’ve spent a lot of the last few years editing books such as my first anthology, SHADOWS EDGE, and the latest edition of YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION, and for right now I really would like to return to writing my own stories. I don’t want to say I will never edit another book, but I have no plans to so in the
immediate future. It’s not that I dislike the job, please understand, but to do it right requires a major investment of time, and I’d rather use that time right now for other projects.
Now the big question. I guess I’m the only one asking. Are you working on or are you thinking of writing any novel ?
No, you’re not the only one asking. I get asked that fairly often. My answer has changed over the years as my ambitions grow and my interest in new challenges broadens. As it happens, I have a short novel in progress at the moment. I’ve been working on it, off and on, for a few years now, and likely will work a few more before it’s finally finished. But there is indeed one coming together, albeit slowly, and I think it will end up being an interesting one. I find it interesting, at least. Once it’s done, should I still have time before I die, I have ideas for at least two more to follow it up. However, as anxious as readers are to see novels written by their favourite short story writers, I think it’s important to understand that the question about when to expect a first novel is full of presumptions, and implicitly suggests that short stories are some sort of inferior stepping stone rather than being a different art form all together. One doesn’t ask the painter when she will start to sculpt, or the signer when he will start to play the oboe. That’s because we understand these are different disciplines. This is true of the novel and the short story as well. The short story is like a poem, in that it requires an economy of language and is focused on a particular message or effect. The novel, being a larger canvas, can be more diffuse, and weave different themes together in the same expansive narrative. Neither form is better than the other, and each requires its own expertise to do well. I’m perfectly happy to work on becoming the best short story writer I can be at the expense of being a novelist. Short stories are likely where my heart will always belong.
Personally I think it is an excellent time for WEIRD fiction; I note with great pleasure a compactness, almost a literary movement, among many authors in which there is great respect and friendship. Is it a sort of “Fellowship of the Weird”? Which authors would you recommend to an Italian publisher?
To some degree, yes, there is a camaraderie among the current North American weird writers. But it’s based on a mutual respect of what each is doing rather than some organized group. By this I mean that the writers (at least those I came up with) were all doing their own thing at the outset, independent of one another, and it was only afterward that readers started grouping them together. Because of this, you find a wide range of styles and focuses among this generation of horror authors. And, I imagine, you’ll also find most of them don’t think of themselves as belonging to any one movement, but instead just consider themselves writers. The advantage to this wave of material coming in is that there’s more than an Italian publisher (or any publisher) could ever hope to represent. Many of the more exciting voices can be found in the annual best-of series like the YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION or BEST NEW HORROR, which act as great samplers, but some of my favourites writers working today who deserve more attention than they get are Richard Gavin, Steve Rasnic Tem, Lynda E. Rucker, Nadia Bulkin, and Nathan Ballingrud, all of whom write in diverse modes, and yet cover just a small portion of what currently calls itself Weird Fiction.
Really loved Soli Carbonizzati, a precious collection. And I hope to see other works of yours printed in Italy very soon. Thank you so much for your time, Simon.
It was my absolute pleasure. Thank you for reading!
Simon Strantzas (born 1972) is a weird fiction author from Toronto, Canada. He has written four story collections and been nominated for a British Fantasy Award in 2009 and Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. His work was also cited as an influence for Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective. In March 2015, Simon Strantzas was selected as co-editor of the upcoming The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 3 (2016). (Wikipedia)