Utopia for whom? | Interview with Gregory Norman Bossert

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Detail from Kinzénguélé, 2003, Moukondo, Brazzaville

The new edition of the postgraduate journal Antae has come out earlier this week, and it features an interview I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Gregory Norman Bossert — award-winning short story writer and pre-visualisation/layout artist for Industrial Light and Magic.

Though this is not the first time I’ve chatted with Greg for the purposes of an interview, this time around we had a specific — though certainly expansive — focus for our conversation, as determined by the publication’s theme this time around.

The subject was the nature of, and the possibility or impossibility of imagining what a Utopia would look like.

Going by previous interactions with Greg I’ve had in the past, I knew he would be an ideal candidate for this contribution, given his direct engagement with speculative fiction of various hues, as well as his thorough knowledge of the literary context in question.

“To propose a functional utopian reality is thus to propose the utopian person. In fact, following on my second point above, a functional utopian proposal must not just propose the existence of this utopian “for whom”, but their creation. And again, such works founder not just on the complexity of the social and psychological sciences, but on the brutal tradition of such attempts. The ties between 20th century Futurism and Fascism are an easy warning here.”

Read the full interview here

 

By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

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Varieties of Viking | The Raven’s Table by Christine Morgan

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Though the Norse side of the equation hasn’t penetrated the Western cultural imaginary as thoroughly as the Ancient Greek and Roman equivalents, it’s safe to say that Vikings and the tales they carry with them retain a firm grasp on our collective consciousness.

You don’t have to venture very far to spot how appealing both historical narratives of Vikings and associated Norse mythology remains to this day. Just this month, Neil Gaiman — arguably the most popular and celebrated fantasy writer of our time — released his own take on some key stories from that domain, and the History Channel TV show Vikings appears to be trotting along rather nicely into a new season thanks to healthy ratings and online buzz.

But against this backdrop of an audience ever-hungry for more stories of the hardy men and women of the North, and the fantastical stories that sustain their sanguine worldview, a new player arrives on the scene of offer a shade of the weird and the majestic to that already rich weave. Released in the coming days from the ever-dependable American indie publisher Word Horde, Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table presents 18 examples of ‘Viking Stories’.

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Given Word Horde’s standing as an exemplary publisher of off-the-beaten track genre fiction, one would expect Morgan’s collection to take a ‘genre’ tack to the history of the Northmen — and true to form, Morgan’s stories certainly take a liberal approach to both history and the parameters of reality, with all the stories featuring at least some element of the supernatural. Happily, however, this broadens out beyond a predictable association with the Sword ‘n Sorcery genre — the logical, obvious generic frame for Viking stories — to encompass a rich array of styles and storytelling modes.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension; ensuring that readers turn the pages while always being at the ready with a surprise. This is complemented by Word Horde’s consistently clever editorial approach, and once again the stories are grouped together in a way that complements their tone and approach.

In fact, The Raven’s Table opens with a grisly flourish, as the inaugural tale, ‘The Barrow-Maid’ spins a lurid yarn of treachery and vengeful resurrection that uses some fundamentals of the viking lifestyle — or rather, death-style — to give way to a zombie story with a hugely satisfying catharsis.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension

This is perhaps the story that most clearly recalls Morgan’s association to the Bizarro genre-cum-movement; with its freewheeling embrace of the violent and the grotesque. While it certainly makes for a great opener and a hugely satisfying story  in its own right, it made this reader happy to discover that it wasn’t really there to set the tone for the rest of the collection, which gives way to more varied — and even gentle — stories in this otherwise unforgiving milieu.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition; whose sense of pacing and dramatic irony Morgan manipulates into the viking world with great effect. Among these is the heartbreaking ‘The Mottled Bear’ which, once again, comes with a hard-earned catharsis that will make the reader whoop with vindictive joy through their tears.

But there is also ‘To Fetter the Fenris Wolf’, whose metamorphosis comes late in the story to give full bloom to the theme of marginalized women in a patriarchal society. That story also deals with the power of storytelling itself, and is one among many examples in the collection of Morgan using the poetic idiom of key Norse texts such as the Elder Edda to insert stories-within-stories in which the characters reiterate the key folk narratives of their time.

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition

Some of these poetic interludes are stand-alone entries — ‘At Ragnarok, The Goddesses’, ‘The Shield Wall’, ‘As We Drown and Die’ — but more often they are framed by a wider story, as in ‘The Vulgarity of Giants’, where an imprisoned band of vikings recall the story of Thor vs the giant Geirrod in a desperate attempt to boost their morale.

Horror also features heavily in the anthology, which is hardly surprising given Word Horde’s predilection for contemporary weird fiction in general and — as it happens — Lovecraftian fiction in particular, with Morgan channeling the sometimes controversial but enduringly popular pioneer of cosmic horror in not one, but two stories.

My favourite from this bunch has got to be ‘With Honey Dripping’, a gloriously perverse depiction of a pagan ritual to ‘Ia Sib-Njurath’ that is far more sexually explicit than anything Lovecraft would have dared to imagine, with Morgan thankfully going all-out to depict a shocking ritual that achieves a kind of grotesque, orgiastic splendour by dint of being entirely unfettered.

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2011)

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2013)

On the other hand, ‘Aerkheim’s Horror’ gives a viking spin to the Lovecraftian fear of miscegenation — particularly the ‘fish men’ of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ — with Morgan evoking a sharp sense of dread as the oblivious viking crew washes up on a seemingly arid island whose ancient inhabitants will not leave without a sanity-shattering fight.

There is more traditional horror too, with the vampire-tinged ‘Sven Bloodhair’ and the folksy siren tale ‘Njord’s Daughter’. Also noteworthy is ‘Nails of the Dead’, narrated in a voice that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud and whose central image — a ship made entirely out of human nails — will certainly stick in the mind.

All of which is to say that The Raven’s Table may not be the revisionist viking story anthology you’re perhaps looking for — though male : female representation is pretty solid, it remains limned by the political realities of the period it depicts, and by a general desire to spin gripping yarns evoking traditional narratives — and neither is it a flinty, historically accurate portrayal of viking life as it was lived.

But Morgan’s collection certainly is a gripping read through-and-through. It takes all the things we find appealing about vikings and their world — the propensity towards righteous violence, a kind of vaunted machismo as a way of life and a mythic world that’s both weird and epic — and distributes them evenly across a tonally rich and inspired set of stories.

Morgan certainly taps into the raw nerve of the ‘viking imaginary’, but not in a way that feels mercenary. Rather, this is a labour of love about a period and a people we all seem to find very easy to love, despite their violent, rough edges.

The Raven’s Table is out from Word Horde on February 28

February Updates #3 | Awguri, Giovanni Bonello; Toni Erdmann; Brikkuni & Unintended

Yep, I had said February was a wonderfully busy month for me, and it’s proven to be so right until the end.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello launch

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First off the ground is the most recent — the launch of Awguri, Giovanni Bonello at Palazzo Pereira in Valletta, which I’ve spoken about earlier and which was commemorated at a very posh — but otherwise very pleasant — party organised by Merlin Publishers and the other ‘conspirators’ involved in this festschrift for Judge Giovanni Bonello, who turned 80 last year and who apart from a distinguished legal career, penned his own micro-histories which Merlin cherry-picked through and passed on to ten selected authors.

Judge Bonello was nice enough to say — in a moving speech at the event — that we lent an extra dimension to his otherwise “two-dimensional” figures; but all I’ll say is that I certainly had great fun with my story ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appelatum’, which allowed me to meld the history of an already-sensational character — Caterina Vitale — with Gothic pastiche. Being encouraged to channel the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula into something of my own certainly felt like opening a fount that was dying to be opened; as was being able to indulge in an ornate, baroque literary style (whose convoluted sentences proved to be something of a challenge to read out loud during the launch party, however!)

Click here to read more about the book 

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Toni Erdmann | Film Review

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

“Growing tired of their distant relationship following yet another whirlwind visit from his go-getting daughter, Winifred decides to pay a surprise visit to [his daughter] Ines in Bucharest. When his plan for enforced bonding fails, Winifred changes tack – and persona – by adopting a wig and fake teeth and introducing himself as ‘Toni Erdmann’ to Ines’ friends and colleagues… while a horrified Ines looks on as her father threatens to compromise her professional and social standing.

“While this sounds superficially amusing and perhaps even creepy, what in fact develops is a touching study in second chances. For Winifred, this is something of a last-ditch effort to make up for any mistakes he may have made while raising Ines – his bumbling nature throughout suggests there may have been many – while Ines is suddenly given a chance to inject some humanity in her ambition-driven, corporate existence.

“Ade’s deceptively loose directorial style leaves plenty of room for the excellent performances by Simonischek and Hüller to shine through, building the film at a humane pace that ensures its emotional peaks feel entirely earned, and not forced into place by a script aiming for formulaic pressure points.”

Click here to read the full review

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Rub Al Khali by Brikkuni | Album Review

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

“Because [Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella’s] expressions of anger and disillusionment, harsh and inflected with dark humour as they sometimes are, always come from a place of earnest emotion. Vella’s not one for protective irony or tongue-in-cheek games: his political, social and critical observations are always made plain for all to see – something that holds true for both his oft-legendary Facebook posts and the content of Brikkuni’s songs in and of themselves.

“And with Rub Al Khali he has taken his earnest approach into what is arguably the most vulnerable place imaginable. Brikkuni’s third album is a concept album, of sorts. A concept album about the dissolution of a ten-year relationship. Yeah.”

Click here to read the full review

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Unintended | Theatre Review

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

“But ironically, for all the hard-ons it seeks to inspire in our beleaguered protagonist, the second half of the play is remarkably limp as far as narrative drive is concerned. After poor Jamie is drugged and drugged over and over again and seduced into having aggressive – though it must be said, not entirely unsatisfying – sex with Diana, the play abandons its previously established vein of cheeky black humour and simmering tension in favour of a terminal descent into tired ‘torture porn’ territory.

“That Buckle is a fan of the in-yer-face theatre genre will surprise absolutely nobody – at least, not those who have followed the trajectory of Unifaun Theatre with even a fleeting sideways glance over its admirable run – and let’s face it, we all knew Unintended was heading towards a gory climax of some kind. But the problem is neither that the violence and degradation on display are ‘too much’, and neither, really, that this was a predictable move for the debut play by Unifaun’s founder and producer. The issue is one of simple story structure.”

Click here to read the full review 

Frenzied box of stories | A Tiding of Magpies by Pete Sutton

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Getting a glimpse on an author’s evolution is always an intriguing prospect. Particularly when this happens through the lens of a short story collection, where variety is almost a necessary part of the experience, allowing you to see how the author manipulates various themes and points of view — all in the space of one compact volume.

The debut collection by Bristol-based writer Pete Sutton, A Tiding of Magpies, is something of an extreme example of this exercise in action, being a collection of just-about themed stories jumbled together, of varying length and varying genre category.

Although the overall arrangement of the stories — the book is published by Kensington Gore — may come across as a tad messy and haphazard as the reader weaves his way through the byways of Sutton’s frenzied imagination, there’s a raw and direct way to Sutton’s storytelling that will always command the reader’s attention.

Opening with a supernatural chiller about a pair of brothers — one of whom appears to be harbouring a malevolent form of telekinesis — with ‘Roadkill’, Sutton establishes himself as a writer capable of both getting at emotional pressure-points straight away to hook the reader in, while operating with a clear and unpretentious style on sentence-level that ensures you’re sucked in without having to look back.

Working through the collection, I’ve often found myself in that rare but wonderful position — the best possible, I think, for a reader — where the lines just rolled their way over my eyes while my brain was busy making pictures.

Sutton’s capability and flexibility as a writer can never really be doubted as you sort through this frenzied box of stories

The downside of this mode of effortless writing — at least, in Sutton’s case — is that it can sometimes feel a tad too abrupt. Some of the stories in A Tiding of Magpies more or less fit into the ‘flash fiction’ mode, with a few of them being effective evocations of a particular mood or idea — ‘Dismantling’ and ‘Not Alone’ are excellent chillers that take full advantage of the constricted form — but the likes of ‘The Cat’s Got It’ feel like little more than doodles thrown into the collection for the hell of it.

Nevertheless, Sutton’s capability and flexibility as a writer can never really be doubted as you sort through this frenzied box of stories. There’s wacky humour (‘An Unexpected Return’), far-future sci-fi (‘The Soft Spiral of a Collapsing Orbit’), experimental mood pieces (‘Sailing Beneath the City’), metafictional escapades (‘Five for Silver’; ‘Christmas Steps’) along with a plethora of horror and plain (or not so plain) weirdness spun in a generous and freewheeling collection.

The final story in the collection, ‘Latitude’ stakes a very particular claim that is bound to reverberate in the reader’s mind’s eye — being something of an exercise is psychogeography for its author’s beloved Bristol, a mid-life crisis tale as well as a story of encroaching horror whose cockroach-infested undertones brought to mind Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth.

Though rough around the edges as an overall editorial product — perhaps a bit of pruning and re-arranging could have made the collection feel more powerful and cohesive — A Tiding of Magpies certainly announces Pete Sutton as a writer of talent and variety, and I certainly look forward to reading more from him… in whichever genre future work of his slots under. If any at all, that is.

February Updates: Shakespeare, historical fiction & the latest in MIBDUL

It’s not February yet but it will be soon enough, and in these times of uncertainty and stress I figured it wouldn’t be so bad to start listing (and celebrating) some of things I’m excited about for the near future.

First up, though — something from the very recent past. 

MIBDUL: latest process video from Inez Kristina

Done for our $10+ Patrons, I’m really loving this fully narrated process video from Inez, detailing how she goes about structuring a page in general, and page 10 of MIBDUL’s first issue in particular.

Of course it would be thrilling for me to see my words come to life as pictures at any stage, but seeing the page at such an early, raw stage has its own particular pleasures. For one thing, it’s good to see that, raw as the sketches are at this stage, Inez has a firm grip of both the geography of the spaces and the overall mood of the characters.

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This certainly goes a long way to put me at ease as the writer of MIBDUL — knowing that the script will be rendered in a way that is both faithful and impressive in its own right — but it’s also heartening to discover that Inez understands the vibe of MIBDUL in a very intimate way. Successful communication is the key to all collaboration, and I think we’re riding a good wave here.

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It’s also interesting to hear Inez speak about how her approach to the pages has changed of late; namely that instead of painstakingly rendering each page one by one, she’s decided to start sketching out several pages all at once, so as to get a better sense of how the storytelling should flow without getting bogged down by details and drained by the process too early.

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Funnily enough, it mirrors my own turn with the writing of late: for similar reasons — to speed up the process in a way that matches the flow of the story — I’ve decided to go ‘Marvel method’ on the latter half of scriptwriting process; partly because dialogue is the most challenging part of it all for me, and partly because I think seeing the page laid out by Inez will inspire me to write dialogue that is both succinct and relevant to the flow of the story.

Please consider following our Patreon journey — it would mean a lot to us. Really. 

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello: Gothic pastiche for an illustrious judge

giovanni-bonello

Like MIBDUL, my contribution to the bi-lingual historical fiction volume Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — to be launched at some point in February in honour of the same judge’s 80th birthday — is yet another collaboration with Merlin Publishers, who have been a pleasure to work with ever since they oversaw the publication of my debut novel, TWO.

To say that this was a fun commission would be a massive understatement. Basically, the judge being honoured by this volume — the poshest birthday present imaginable, am I right? — was also something of an historian, and the personages he wrote about were ‘assigned’ to each of us writers to spin a fictional yarn out of. And I will forever be grateful to Merlin’s head honcho Chris Gruppetta for giving me what is possibly the most sensational and salacious character of the lot: Caterina Vitale, a Renaissance-era “industrial prostitute”, torturer of slaves and — paradoxically — beloved patron of the Carmelite Order.

Of course, I went to town with this one. High on the then still-ongoing Penny Dreadful — and hammering out the short story to the haunting and dulcet tones of that show’s soundtrack by the inimitable Abel Korzeniowski — I liberally crafted something that is both a pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, all set against the backdrop of a Malta fresh from the Great Siege.

I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on this gorgeous-looking book — designed by Pierre Portelli with illustrations by Marisa Gatt — if only because I look forward to checking out how my fellow TOC-mates tackled the raw material of Bonello’s historical output.

The Bard at the Bar: Debating Shakespeare

debating-shakespere

On February 8 at 19:00, I will be moderating a panel discussion on whether the works of William Shakespeare are relevant to the Maltese theatre scene — and Malta at large — and if so, how to make them feel more accessible and vital to the widest possible audiences.

The brainchild of actor, director and journalist Philip Leone-Ganado of WhatsTheirNames Theatre, the debate will, significantly, take place at The Pub in Archbishop Street, Valletta, aka the place where Oliver Reed keeled over and died after consuming an obscene amount of alcohol while on a break from filming Gladiator back in 1999.

More recently, the venue has accommodated the very first edition of ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ — a production of the Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Ganado himself last year — and another one is in the offing for 2017.

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

The lively, unpretentious and game production certainly felt to me like a step in the right direction as far as making Shakespeare more vibrant and relevant was concerned, so I think the Pub is as good a place as any to keep that inspired momentum going with a good discussion.

And it should certainly make for a satisfying debate, given that apart from Ganado himself, the panel will be composed by James Corby (Head of Department of English at the University of Malta and hence offering some academic weight to the proceedings), Polly March (director of the upcoming MADC Shakespeare summer production — the ritualised and established intake of Shakespeare for the island) and Sean Buhagiar, head of the newly-established Teatru Malta and someone deeply concerned with nudging the local theatrical scene out of its usual comfort zones.

So do come along to hear us talk. And feel free to shout your questions and comments over a pint, or ten. Just don’t crank it up to Oliver Reed levels, please.

Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

tod_008_state-of-the-weird-2017

For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

the-weird

And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

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Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #10 | Martin, Falksen

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

The Un-Bride; or No Gods and Marxists by Anya Martin

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

You’ll forgive the slowing down in pace between the last installment of the read-a-thon and this entry; I shifted country for a few weeks and had a bit of a break in between, only to return to the island homestead to the news of America’s surprising election result.

As luck would have it — or whatever variant of luck, chance or coincidence you want to call this, given the circumstances — there is not one, but two stories in Lockhart’s anthology that riff on the history and mores of what is supposedly the polar opposite of the current US president-elect’s ideological barometer: Socialism.

However, this being an American anthology dominated by the work of American writers itching for ways to respond to Mary Shelley’s text in a way that also scratches various pop culture itches, it’s hardly surprising to discover that the stories in question don’t seek to delve into the intricacies of Socialist and Communist ideology for penetrating insights.

For the most part, both Anya Martin and G.D. Falken’s contributions to Eternal Frankenstein play on American perception of the ‘Red Scare’, attacking this perennial barnacle of US popular culture from different angles.

Martin refines her angle of attack even further, placing us in the shoes of none other than Elsa Lanchester — the English-born American actress who brought none other than the Bride of Frankenstein to life in the iconic 1935 James Whale film. It’s also a story that contains the line, “Those crazy communists had saved the brain of the daughter of Karl Marx!”, which tells you all you need to know about where Martin is going with this.

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Scream Queen: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

An inspired piece of tongue-in-cheek pulp, the story juggles unlikely romance and less-likely forays into body-reanimation as enabled by Soviet double-agents. What distinguishes it in narrative clip and stylistic approach is Elsa’s distinctive voice. She’s a coquettish but intelligent guide that takes the story’s many spirited twists in stride, giving us a female protagonist in a man’s world who can more than handle herself — she does it while maintaining her wit and poise too (though it must be said, she’d hardly a match for her own — rather formidable — mother in that regard.

G.D. Falksen — also known as the guy whose picture you find when you Google ‘Steampunk’ — takes a flintier approach. The frankly assembled third-person story has our Frankenstein figure trying his damnedest to manufacture the titular New Soviet Man away from the watchful eyes of Stalin and while ensconced in the bowels of a freezing Kazakh steppe.

Our entry point into this world is Captain Sergeyev; an uncompromising apparatchik if there ever was one, and one whose well-being we’re emotionally primed not to care about too much, dour little customer that he is. Which is good, because while Falksen metes out what could be considered something  of a predictable denouement for him,  it’s falls on the rather pleasurable side when it does arrive.

Karel Roden in Frankenstein's Army (2013)

Karel Roden in Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

A central moment in the story — in which the Doctor suggests that going from Fascist to Communist fanatic is more or less as easy a flicking a switch, for him — reminded me of a similar quote in the otherwise gleefully pulpy Frankenstein’s Army (2013); which takes the more traditional route of having Frankenstein as Mengele (rather than a renegade Communist weird scientist).

If nothing else, both Martin and Falksen prove that war and its fallout is ripe pickings for Frankenstein stories, with many corpses vulnerable for desecration by the equally numerous ideological nut-jobs ready to tinker with them… while the still-living attempt their Creature’s shamble back into normal life with varying degrees of success.

James Whale himself certainly knew it.

Read previous: Betty Rocksteady

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon | Introduction

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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But first, kindly indulge me in a bit of a personal reverie on what made me fall in love with Mary Shelley’s seminal novel in the first place…

*

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite novels of all time. I guess this isn’t particularly unique – what with the book being the source of one of the most perennial features of multimedia pop culture since the beginning of the 20th century – but that doesn’t of course take away from the intense love I have for the original novel.

It’s not a childhood favourite, either: I first decided to finally tick it off my virtual to-read pile for a very functional reason. I was in the final year of my Bachelor’s course in English Lit at the local Uni, and one of the elective courses I chose that year was ‘Literature and Technology’, taught by the inimitable Prof Ivan Callus, and which had Frankenstein as a required text for obvious reasons.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

My social life at Uni was at its highest ebb at the time, but so were degrees of academic stress – what with a dissertation to complete and synoptic exams to cram for – but despite all this, I decided to put everything aside and check out the austere Everyman edition of Shelley’s groundbreaking, genre-creating work from the University of Malta library and finish it asap.

I guess I expected it to be fun-by-accident, and stylistically creaky in a similar way to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose essence – in my humble opinion – was improved and made far cooler by subsequent iterations. In other words, I suppose I was expecting to find an old-timey version of all the things that have made Frankenstein great for generations to come.

But actually, I ended up being humbled by a novel whose raw power was undeniable. She wrote this when she was nineteen! I kept saying to myself in disbelief, but there was also something peculiarly appropriate to this fact. Far from being creaky, it moves at a breakneck (if pained) pace – the work of a young woman trying desperately to give shape to the confusing mess that life can sometimes be.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations (the scientist’s hubris, motherhood, absent fathers and the inability to function in the world as a context-less outcast), it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream. Which is even more surprising given how the story is stacked together against various frame narratives – a gradual build-up with a shifting POV that immerses you deeper and deeper into, instead of alienating you from the story.

(It always saddens me to think just how outmoded this style of storytelling has become… how easily we would dismiss a novel that tries this nowadays as being ‘long-winded’ and/or accuse it of ‘taking ages to get going’.)

Thankfully, even if its pop culture counterparts sometimes loom larger – like Karloff’s original Hollywood creature – than the reputation of Shelley’s own novel (I wonder how many people familiar with the Frankenstein name even know there is a book), it’s heartening to know that Shelley is in fact getting respects from the quarters who matter. The legacy of this, her first novel, has been discussed and celebrated ad infinitum for various reasons, and I won’t get into that now.

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations, it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream

Suffice it to say that it was great to hear that Word Horde, one of my favourite indie presses, has decided to dedicate an anthology to Shelley’s influential novel, amassing an army of some of the best writers working in the genres that same book has helped give rise to.

I look forward to reading and reviewing each of the stories, as I’m fairly confident that all of the 16 writers whose short fiction makes up the contents of Eternal Frankenstein has felt a similar electric charge as I have when first experiencing Mary Shelley’s work.

Because after all, it is a charge that has run through my own fiction too. My debut novel, Two, contains a somewhat hidden but nonetheless deeply embedded debt to Shelley… and I’m confident that anything else I write in the future will contain at least a shred of Frankenstein’s legacy in one way or another.

So, despite it not being a dreary November night, I look forward to unleashing my little micro-creations (aka mini-reviews) into the world very, very soon.

I hope you enjoy them too.

Watch this space.

 

Do it for yourself | T.E. Grau | Interview

Horror writer T.E. Grau is slowly but surely carving a niche for himself as one of the most eclectic and artful practitioners of the genre in the American scene, as is borne out by his critically acclaimed debut collection The Nameless Dark — which we reviewed right here just a couple of days ago. Now the man himself steps into the Soft Disturbances interview lounge to give an expansive, generous and impassioned overview of what inspired him so far, and what we can expect from his upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore… 

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

When did you first realise that you wanted to start writing fiction, and did you act on this impulse immediately?

From as far back as I can remember, I had an interest in writing, and starting in my early teens, I fostered a nebulous, long-range plan for engaging in the serious authorship of fiction at some unspecified date. But instead of hunkering down and just doing that, I spent decades dancing around the edge of the well, writing everything else but fiction, including music journalism, review work, two different humor columns, tech writing, ghost writing, and dozens of intensely mediocre screenplays.

I think what held me back was I thought I needed to write a novel to be an author, and I didn’t have any ideas for a novel that were worth a damn, other than some bullshit pseudo-Hunter Thompson tale about an American drifting to China to document the last vestige of the American Dream on the opposite end of the world. It would have been awful.

At the tail end of 2009, while I was writing one of those intensely mediocre screenplays – which just happened to be for a horror film for which I was brought in to “add in some Lovecraftian elements,” as I had read and greatly enjoyed HPL’s work back in college – my wife Ivy changed the course of my creative life forever. She’d read some of my scripts, and enjoyed some of the exposition (overly long as it was), but also saw that the medium wasn’t a good match on either end.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Finally, as I was complaining about yet another round of ridiculous producers’ notes and re-writes on a script that probably wasn’t going to get made anyway, she said, “Why don’t you just stop with this screenwriting and write fiction?” That was it. No one had ever asked me that question before. Not in the 11 years I’d written scripts, nor the decade before while I’d written everything else, futzing around for local arts magazines and live music journals. The simplicity of her question – which hit my ears as a statement – was astounding. That I could just walk away from a medium into which I’d invested over a decade of my creative life but also grown to loathe, and finally pursue something that I’d always dreamed of doing. I “quit” screenwriting that very day, and Hollywood somehow plodded onward without me.

While reading and researching Lovecraft’s work for the script I’d just been working on, I’d discovered that there was such a thing as “Lovecraftian fiction,” stories written as pastiche, inspired by, and/or set in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft. I had no idea this was a thing. But poking around a bit more, I found out that there were anthologies looking for short stories of Lovecraftian fiction, and that an editor (and RPG icon) by the name of Kevin Ross was looking for stories for his antho Dead But Dreaming 2, to be published by Miskatonic River Press (Tom Lynch’s outfit).

I think I’m a better writer because my journey to prose took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles

I saw that as my shot to break in. I didn’t need to write a novel to be a prose writer. I could write a short story, and ease my way into the fiction game. Find out if I have a knack for it, and then see what happens. I started writing ‘Transmission’, then started writing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ almost simultaneously. I pitched both to Kevin, and he vibed better with ‘Transmission’, so I finished the story and sent it to him, and he accepted it. My first completed, and purchased, piece of fiction. I held back ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ for five years, and first published it in The Nameless Dark: A Collection, even though it was initially written in early 2010.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

So, my journey to prose was a long time coming, but I think I’m a better writer because it took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles, and mainly due to the constant rejection one faces as a screenwriter. In film (not television), the writers are on the very bottom rung, and receive no deference and very little respect for their integral contribution to the content-making process.

That was important for me to experience, if only to get over myself and realize my fingers don’t weave gold with every keystroke. Ivy working with me as my editor was the other important factor, allowing me to finally understand that the fine tuning is just as or more important than the initial burst of creativity. That not every sentence (or paragraph or page) is precious and sacred. Defensive writers aren’t great writers. Confident writers kill their babies, because they’ll always make more. She taught me that, and I owe her everything because of it.

Why is horror such an appealing genre for you, both as a reader and writer?

I think you’re either born a person who digs the darkness or you’re not. And I don’t necessarily mean people who play Halloween dress-up every day, favor goth fashion, live as wanna-be vampires, practice Satanism, or something similar.

That’s cool and all, if that floats your boat, but what I’m talking about is someone who has a genuine interest, fondness, and deep affection for things that reflect a melancholy, a gloom, a doom, a general decay and reflection of mortality or pessimism. Things that are just a bit askew from the norm. The incomprehensible or the unexplainable. Liminal places of abandonment and decay. Rain clouds and fog. Desolate fields. Ruined buildings and oddly constructed houses. The vastness of outer space. Magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Mausoleums. Subterranean places. Attics. Abandoned barns and industrial sites. Vast stretches of trees. Cheap carnivals. Ancient caves at the bottom of the sea. The beautifully grotesque and the (Big G) Gothic.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

These are the essential salts, the foundation elements, of horror and fantastical fiction. It either appeals to a person or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, you can’t fake it (although some do try).

And while I’m a generally upbeat and affable person, my mind and curiosity and sense of wonder call out to those things, and when I encounter them, while most would be saddened or creeped-out or uncomfortable, they make me happy and content.

I feel at home. That’s what draws me to horror literature, and to those who can capture this sense of gloomy atmospherics, dread, and impending doom in the stories they write. There’s nothing quite like that. It’s a true power.

There are many definitions of the ‘weird fiction’ genre (which you’re also associated with). What’s yours?

I get uncomfortable with the various labels going around for what I like to call “dark fiction,” as I think people spend too much time trying to create then box-up subgenres of fiction for discussion or marketing purposes, or just for “team-ism,” which is rarely productive or positive. But I do like the term “weird fiction,” as it nods to the late 19th and early 20th century authors, including all of those amazing pulp writers, who added so much to fantastical fiction.

Weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death

Weird fiction to me is work of writing that introduces the unexplained – and usually unexplainable – into our rational world. It can – and often is – laced with the scientific, the religious, the historic, and the cosmic, taking real world facts and beliefs and twisting them just a bit, then setting them back on the shelf to distract our eye, as something just doesn’t seem right about them anymore. It’s peeling back a common facade and finding something unexpected and unknown underneath. It’s the odd, the uncanny. The bizarre.

Also, and this is just a personal opinion, but weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death. Weird fiction can be quite subtle, but no less impactful in terms of unsettling a reader.

Would you agree that Clive Barker and Nathan Ballingrud are among the most powerful influences on the stories collected in your debut collection, The Nameless Dark? If so, why?

Clive Barker certainly isn’t an influence, as I had never read any Barker until the stories for The Nameless Dark were either finished and published in other places, or already plotted out. I didn’t read Baker during his heyday in the 80s, as I was still geeking out over high fantasy and sword & sorcery. The closest I came to horror was Conan books.

Nathan’s work isn’t so much an influence either (as, similar to Barker, most of my stories for my collection were already either finished or plotted when I read his work for the first time in North American Lake Monsters), but his writing was and is very important to me in terms of what the genre of dark/horror/weird fiction is capable of in this new century.

No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud

So, in many ways, he’s not an influence so much as an inspiration, as the fearless exploration of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and generally horrible behavior that lies at the heart of many of his stories hit me like discovering a new color. I was floored when I read his collection. Still am. No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud. He’s also a genuinely scary writer, meaning he writes things that scare or disturb me. I rarely experience that reaction when reading anyone’s work.

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Barker is great (particularly his shorter work, like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’), and his Hellraiser universe is a horror staple (co-opted by Hollywood), but in many ways, I think Ballingrud is a superior writer to Barker, although I understand it’s difficult to compare based on time periods and conventions of the respective eras.

Long term, and deep down into my marrow, I’m probably more influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, and Beatnik writers than anyone in horror fiction, although Lovecraft certainly influenced several stories expressly written for Lovecraftian anthologies, some of which ended up in The Nameless Dark.

The figure of Lovecraft looms over many of the stories too. Does the fact that there are plenty of Lovecraftian ‘markets’ open at any given time play a part in that? Or have you always been attracted to the core of Lovecraft’s work?

I covered a bit of this above, as Lovecraftian fiction was my entry into prose writing, and horror writing in particular. Regardless of how I feel about him personally, his work got me into writing fiction, which literally changed my creative life, and I’m grateful that he drew from and coalesced many of his influences (Bierce, Poe, Dunsany, Chambers, etc.) into the multiverse and mythos he created.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

What originally drew me into his work was his sense of cold cosmicism, and a universe that is far more vast and malevolent and uninterested in our existence than our puny, needy human intellect can comprehend. There is no devil, no angels, no bearded man pulling the strings. There are no strings. Just endless voids, with the occasional Outer God and Great Old One brushing against our reality just long enough to influence primal cultures, establish secretive and murderous cults, and burst minds by their very existence. I loved this. It was very dark and menacing, very secret history and cryptozoological.

Growing up in a staunch, Evangelical Christian home, the stuff I was fed in church always chaffed at the back of my lizard brain. Stumbling across Lovecraft’s outlook on the universe was a revelation, and a breath of fresh, clean, pessimistic air. I was hooked instantly.

My most recent, current, and upcoming work doesn’t and won’t contain nearly the level of Lovecraftian influence, but his work will always feature somewhere in my writing, especially in my Salt Creek stories, a novel for which I’m slowly putting together.

A satirical edge is also present in a number of the stories, mainly focused on certain aspects of American culture that seem to irk you. Were there axes you needed to grind before you set out writing some of these stories? 

Before writing fiction, I wrote comedy for years, in various mediums with varying levels of success. I’ve been doing it much longer than writing dark fiction, so humor or satire is going to naturally bleed into my writing where appropriate (and maybe where it’s not).

I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture

I’ve never thought of my satirical viewpoints as grinding axes, per se, but I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture, and humanity itself. Hyper-religiosity, racism, misogyny, stinginess, greed, bad parenting, predation, xenophobia, and just general shittiness to others gather at the top of a very long list of grievances against my species.

Okay on second though, I’m grinding several axes. I’d guess dozens of axes are being ground at any one given time, depending on how many stories I’m working on at the same time.

Could you tell us something about your upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore? How would you say it builds on your previous work?

I always have a hard time summing up the novella without giving anything away, but here goes a weaksauce attempt: It’s a story about teenage obsession, conformity, parenting, class, and illness providing a backdrop for a somewhat jaundiced, slightly different take on the contemporary vampire tale.

I’m not sure how or if it does build on my previous work, although it is set from the POV of a teenage girl and follows her around in the world. In this way, it reminds me a bit of ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, as it includes a bit of geographical wandering, which set the plot framework of ‘Tubby’.

they-dont-come-home-anymore-by-t-e-grau

I see it as something I’ve never done before (and probably won’t do again), marking my first and probably last vampire tale. Also, it’s my longest piece to date, which shows some building on my previous work.

And the cover – featuring artwork by Candice Tripp and cover design by Ives Hovanessian – is an absolutely stunner. I count myself incredibly fortunate to feature such a cover as the calling card for the novella. Candice is doing the artwork for my second collection, and we have another project in the works, as well. Crossing my fingers that I’ll be working with her for many years to come.

And finally… what advice would you give to writers keen to break into the weird fiction and/or horror scenes in particular?

First of all, write what you want to write. Truly. Honestly. Dig down deep, cast your gaze out as far as you can, and get it all out. Question everything, follow all leads. Don’t worry about genre or market or anything out of your control. Until you get paid for it as an employee with a parking pass, bathroom key, and benefits, don’t think of yourself as a “commercial writer.” Think of yourself as a writer, period, which means you write for you.

There are very few money-making fiction genres, and weird and horror fiction aren’t it

Make yourself happy and creatively satisfied, because if you’re writing weird fiction for money, a) you’ll fail in reaching your goal, because no one really makes any money, and b) your writing will come off as lackluster and passionless, which will make you even less money and lead to more failure. Don’t do that to yourself.

There are very few money-making fiction genres (and maybe one – romance/erotica, and I suppose whatever “literary fiction” is), and weird and horror fiction aren’t it. So, if you choose to write down here, crouched low in the shadows with the rest of us ghouls, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of the shade, the decay, the destitute and the forgotten. Do it to celebrate the beauty of the dark.

Then, get to work, and look for open markets. I’d hazard that with self publishing, online publications, and a recent proliferation of ‘zines and anthologies and fiction journals devoted to weird, horror, and dark fiction, it’s easier to place ones work these days than probably ever before in the history of written language. The markets are there. Write your best stuff and send it out.

And, in the end, if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Get your book on a shelf – YOUR shelf – and on Amazon, in indie bookstores and libraries, and build your legacy, if only for you and your loved ones. Gatekeepers are helpful, but they are not absolute. If you have the talent, the desire, and if you work your ass off, no one can hold you back from becoming a writer of whatever fiction you want to write, written however you want to write it. Very few of us are professionals, but a lot of us are writers. And there’s room for more.

Check out my own review of The Nameless Dark right here, and stay updated with all things Grau by visiting ‘The Cosmicomicon’

Read previous interview: Alistair Rennie

Featured image: ‘Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide’ by Ola Larsson