HELLNOTES: Congratulations on your new collection Occasional Beasts: Tales (Omnium Gatherum, 2018)! For readers who might be new to your work, what can you tell us about this collection? How would you describe the overall feeling and subject matter in these stories?
John Claude Smith: The basics first: there are fourteen tales, of which four are never before published. As I started to pick the stories to include in the collection, themes arose that helped me sync them together in such a way as to be both consistent if varied, and in some cases, more firmly connected, as some stories made sense back to back.
The themes include the obsession and at times addiction found in love and relationships, as well as transformation (we’ll get more into this later), which in many cases can be triggered by the ebb and flow of those relationships; in mentioning addiction, there’s also the more obvious use of drugs, alcohol, and even sex, though the latter might not be as obvious. Body horror is prevalent, weird elements abound, though my take on weird fiction is perhaps rougher around the edges than what a purist would qualify as true weird fiction.
As a writer accumulates a body of work, certain themes become signposts along the way, but for me, the themes mentioned here have been with me for a long time. Other themes will periscope up for a few tales here and there, but these themes run through a lot of my work.
That said, I see a current trend of the “other” as focal point in some of the tales, as well as new material I’m presently writing. “The Glove” is the best example so far, in its own, curious way, though I believe other tales in the collection, written at an earlier date, were pointing me in this direction. A new obsession to expand on.
HN: Although I was often struck by your stories’ remarkable (and scarring) images, I was also pleased to occasionally recognize a few hints and references to other works. These references were sometimes overt, such as an appearance by a certain nefarious evil tome, but also more subtle, such a husband who just happens to have both a secret murder room and a blue-tinted beard. Building on that, what explicit influences do you see in your work? Beyond that, what are some of the other influences that might be buried where readers can’t necessarily see them?
JCS: The tale you reference, “I Am…,” was for an anthology of Lovecraftian fairy tales called A Mythos Grimmly. I took the framework of “Bluebeard,” modernized it, and gave it a tweak toward the end that led the reader into Lovecraft territory. So, yes, this one, with this information, may seem more obvious to most readers.
The explicit influences are a love of the movies of David Cronenberg, as meshed with the mindset, but not specifically the writing style, of J.G. Ballard, as fleshed out with a brisk, rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. Early Barker and Joe R. Lansdale abound, but as much or even more so, Kathe Koja’s horror novels, Lucy Taylor’s early work, and the no-holds-barred explicit sensibilities of Charlee Jacob drive a lot of what I do. Take all these, which are more the foundational elements for me as a writer, and channel them through the current weird fiction trends and, now, veering into cosmic horror, and you might have a feel for where I am at this time as a writer. I’m never settled! I never want to be settled. I don’t want to be writing the same tale two years from now as I do now. I might swerve into places that seem familiar to readers of my work, but I want the new tales to bounce off the old ones and show me something else, something new about the world we live in, and my thought processes and observations.
I think my comment about the mindset influence of J.G. Ballard might surprise most people who read my work, but a major part of how I approach writing is with what I’ve learned from his tales and words outside of those tales. Ballard always looked at every situation from an unfamiliar angle, a completely different perspective, one that always made my brow furrow as he opened avenues for a broader spin on the central idea.
When I approach a story idea, I allow it to do the normal thing, but swiftly start moving into different psychological/philosophical terrain, a place not populated by those regular and/or expected perspectives, but a variety of them, finally settling on one I believe I can do justice to. Though it should be noted, as with right now, as I type this in Rome, where my imagination is allowed to frolic freely without the hindrance of the real world that I live in the states, dealing with a lot besides writing, the strange perspective is often the first place I look, a more natural progression for how I like to write, bypassing the machinations of the norm. I love it when writing is in this place, but life often throws the flow out of whack, or dams it up. I always hope never to have this happen but have learned that’s a part of the deal. For now…
HN: I was impressed by the variety of characters and settings, but what I found united these stories was the way they each built to a defining, unshakeable nightmarish image. Without spoiling any particular story, I imagine readers discussing your book must start their conversations as “What about the story with the [unique monster reveal/ one vicious action/ singularly horrific image seared into the mind’s eye]?” Given the way you masterfully build to that culmination, I was wondering what the general process of writing a story is like for you? Do you begin with that horrific image, or is it something that you find as you move towards the end? What do you think is the appeal of having a visceral and striking moment in the story?
JCS: I often begin with that one, horrific or shocking or cruelly subtle image. It sets me up to know a distinctive part of the path, where it should lead, and all I have to do is find the story, allow my brain to find the story, and type it out, flesh it out, add whatever’s necessary to really give that image ooomph, which it might just have without it, but with the proper build-up, it enhances the reader’s experience. Sometimes, though, because nothing I do as a writer has a specific formula, that image will come to me as a process of writing the tale. One example might be the penultimate sentence in “The Wounded Table.” As the tale grew, I saw things, had one image earlier dealing with Kimmie’s discovery about the table in her girlfriend’s room, that could have served as that ‘wow’ moment, and might for most readers, but for me, the penultimate sentence serves as the moment that should catch the reader’s breath, make them think about choices being made—and yes, willful transformative choices—and how, within the context of the tale, there was no other choice to be made! And in stating this, it’s less about an image with this tale, per se, as a suggested image, haha… (I’m leaving this here anyway, as the initial image and the suggested image work in tandem…and it’s one of my strongest stories.)
Still, a potent image is often essential to my tales, as I like to reward the reader for taking the journey.
My process is primarily an extension of consistency. I write. I sit down in front of the laptop or with a pad of paper and a pen in my hand, and dig in. Nothing fancy, but it goes through stages where it’s non-stop—like now—and points where it’s like pulling teeth with chopsticks. But I am a believer of getting down to the work, being with the words, and seeing where it all leads.
As for the visceral and striking moment, as noted above, the reader should be rewarded in some way, so in many cases, this is how I do it, so they can have something to think about or flinch from as they put the book down and think, “Damn, that was disturbing” or…whatever. I remember reading too many tales over the years where the author would keep my interest until the end, but the ending would be blah. What was the point? Now, I can deal with ambiguity and see a lot more of that filtering into my own writing, but for the most part, I need something to stick with me, give the tale a reason to stick with me. I enjoy tales that linger in my thought for hours or days afterwards.
HN: As the last question in this thread, I wonder if you have an example of what you think the ideal form of a story is? Obviously, there are countless “theories of story” — hinged on plot, character, emotion, effect, ad infinitum — but in the Lightning Round, what is your theory of story and what story (by someone else) exemplifies this?
JCS: Structure is an extension of narrative necessity. Narrative necessity comes down to character. Character can be defined as human, ambient—especially with true weird fiction—a thing (an inanimate object) or…multiple possibilities. So, we’re back to the beginning—it’s a vicious circle. The truth is, there is no ideal form. Each story dictates its path. Each writer’s obsessions, interests, personal experiences (often distorted by memory, but often enough, if we dig deep, a truth of some sort surfaces, to be used and/or reshaped in our tales) dictate the path a story may take, within the scope of what the writer as a reader has accumulated over the years in their writer’s toolbox through the reading of tales/novels/cereal boxes/etc. What works and what does not, different approaches and different presentations abound. As my friend, the poet Marco Cinque says (and quoted at the beginning of my novelette, “Autumn in the Abyss”), “The Word is a living thing.” Maybe that’s what it all comes down to. The Words have the final say.
I think of writing as a very rhythmic process. When beginning a tale, I need to get the opening sequence ironed out before I can move forward. Voice, tone, distinct nuances add to the rhythm, but if a tale has found this unheard rat-tat-tat flow, the writing becomes easier to approach. I’m writing a few different tales right now, and each one has a rhythm that, when I get back to the tales, it’s automatic how, because they are defined already, I am locked into the voice, and I’m off. The choice of words and language acclimates to each tale differently, where, for example, the voice in a new tale called, “Winter in the Wasteland,” a novelette with a crude, rock ‘n’ roll voice (which ends up in an utterly foreign, weird place), is as diametrically opposed to the voice in another long tale, “The Great God Pollock,” which is crisp, sharp, no frills (before leading to an image to put all images I’ve ever attempted to shame, ahem). The ability to bounce between these two tales and one more is made easier because they all have a rhythm that my brain finds easy to lock into. Now, to just complete the damn things!
HN: I lied; that wasn’t the end. While we’re discussing structure, what was the process like for selecting and arranging the stories in this collection? Was there a curated experience that you were going for with the flow of the collection from start to finish, or was it a different guiding principle? During the process of preparing this collection, were you surprised to find any similarities or thematic through-line across these stories?
JCS: Flow was essential, yes. But in stating that, the flow went through different progressions as I worked out the proper current upon which the tales should float along, one that made the most impact. That and some tales work well together.
Initially, I was going to start with the newest tale, “Personal Jesus,” but was convinced otherwise by my publisher. On second look, yes, she was correct. That tale is the one that doesn’t exactly fit the theme, so starting with it might throw a wrench into expectations. I briefly thought another new tale, the ultra-visceral love/obsession tale, “A Declaration of Intent,” might be a good place to start, but almost immediately realized the body horror qualities that make that story work might be too much as an opening salvo, even as other body horror tales flesh out the collection; yes, my weird fiction veers into body horror more often than not. I did not want to scare off any readers by starting too heavy into that facet of what many of the tales touch on, for fear of derailing the reader before they got to taste the variety of horrors that awaited. For a moment, a brief moment, I even though “Beautiful” might be a good one to jostle the mindset from the get-go, but as with “Declaration…” the distinctive voice there, the way it’s told and what it deals with, well…again, it might be too much. I settled on bookending the collection with the two longest tales. “The Glove,” another new tale, seemed a good place to start. It is the tale closest to where I sense my fiction might go in dealing with strong weird elements, but also tossing in some visceral elements (that word again—visceral–of course, of course!), but also balancing it all with an exploration of the “other,” as the lead character, Allie Cahler, combines multiple traits that distinguish her as an outsider of sorts, before we find out how outside of the obvious she is. “The Land Lord,” the second longest tale, made perfect sense to end the collection, as its strength is in a surreal, peripheral oddness that drags the tale to one of the bleakest finales within the collection, yet one that’s also meant to remain in the reader’s mind for days afterward, if I’ve given the tale its due diligence.
Further in, “Personal Jesus,” settled into the middle of the collection, a thematic intermission, before we hit a three-pack that works in a few ways. “I Am…” “Beautiful,” “Chrysalis,” are three female driven tales. The titles even form a chain-link sentence: I Am…Beautiful…Chrysalis. Okay, so that’s an ellipsis-linked sentence, I know, I know. The tales take the reader along different stages of the female experience when dealing with hard/harsh situations: “I Am…” starts with mutilation via fire, and how the protagonist takes the experience and bends it to her will, with a little help from Lovecraft; “Beautiful” deals with a distortion of perceptions, in how one sees one’s self in the scope of the world. The mutant aspect is strong, but who’s to say that is something ugly, if one believes otherwise? “Chrysalis” shows us the cruelty inherent in relationships gone awry or, more so, that should never have happened, and how the universe or wish-fulfillment helps the protagonist, Regina, find her way out of it. This threesome makes sense to me in how they resonate off each other, each situation a circumstance played out to absurd ends, or perhaps the only true possibility for each woman. Transformation is the essential thread to how they develop, as well.
“The Wounded Table” followed up by “A Declaration of Intent” seems two sides to a similar coin. “Dandelions” and “The Cooing” check in with themes of wanderlust gone sideways. Other connections will be up to the reader to figure out.
HN: This collection is titled Occasional Beasts, which is taken from the almost-titular story “The Occasional Beast That Is Her Soul.” Trying not to spoil anything (although this our readers’ warning), that story involves a woman who shapeshifts in response to the expectations of those around her. I would put to you that many of the stories in this collection explore similar themes — the near-omnipotence offered by polymorphy (be it physical, intellectual, spiritual, or even in crafting stories) but how it is inevitably stunted and, often, to horrific ends. What is it about shape-shifting that proves such a fertile ground for horror? Since your stories take place largely in a contemporary setting, why does this still resonate with us long after mysticism and superstition have ostensibly diminished?
JCS: As I mulled over answers after reading these questions, I was reminded of a point in 2011, before my first collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me, when I asked a friend who’d read all my tales up to that point, what should I call the collection. His immediate response was, Something More… I was miffed, until he noted that so many of the characters in my tales are striving for something more. From their lives or themselves, they were never satisfied.
I realized this was something that coursed through me at all times. There’s always something niggling within me, a desire for something more, that pervades so much of my life, and has for a long time; perhaps forever. I’ve never been happy to let the status quo dictate everything. Expectations are lost to me in the scope of personal growth. Situations demand something more, in most cases, than perhaps I’ve deemed is enough.
At most times, a frisson rubs at the back of my mind. Life is always not quite where it needs to be. For example, my current relationship, I spend the summers in Rome…and nine months away. So, until we’re permanently together somewhere, anywhere, I know there’s always something more to be had.
Point being, many of us strive for something more within ourselves at all times and changing ourselves and/or accepting who we are—which might be the ultimate concession to change, facing the reality of who we are and what our lives are, without blinders—is as vital as the air we breathe. We are all in flux. Change is constant—embrace it. Fighting it leads to stagnation, and that is something I cannot stand. Hell, one of my greatest fears plays off this: incapacitation. Being stuck in a bad situation with no way to alter it, to change it and, to the extreme, simply being frozen in place, with no hope for something more, because hope is no longer a part of the equation.
With writing, there’s an understanding that what I write now as a storyteller is the best I can do now, but there’s always the need to be better, do better, learn and grow. Change is inevitable.
So, back to the Occasional Beasts: Tales—after that lengthy aside, excuuuuse me—I realized so many of the characters within this collection also get swept up into this mindset, and since I enjoy body horror as much as weird horror, the results are often of a physical design. Hence, shapeshifting or more specifically, physical change that has nothing to do with “shapeshifting” is necessary for each of them to at least aspire to something more within their lives, or the situations within each tale. Change by choice and not as a result of faltering circumstances. Change welcomed with arms and eyes wide open.
HN: Over at your blog, The Wilderness Within, you’ve been doing a series of teasers leading up to this book by releasing notes on the writing of each story. I, personally, love story notes because rather than demystifying the creative process, they tend to enrich my appreciation. To me, story notes are not a magician spoiling the trick but instead are proof that alchemy is real. What is the appeal of story notes to you? In writing these, have you uncovered anything new about your own process or your stories?
JCS: I remember way back when I first read Harlan Ellison, all of his books had some sort of story notes or rambling asides that amused me as much if not more than the tales. I like the idea of giving the reader a little more info, as I’m always into what inspired this or that tale, or whatever creative endeavor a person undertakes. For example, there’s a wonderful noise band called Schloss Tegal—actually, I’d qualify them as “intelligent noise”—who tend to write up detailed CD notes about what went into the creation of each CD, and they are full of information one would not pick up without knowing otherwise. For me, it’s a boon, I love it. The information is key to deepening my enjoyment of the music.
With the story notes blog posts, which I am still in the process of writing, as I’ve just made it past the halfway point, even as Occasional Beasts: Tales has been released into the wild, I have remembered more in some cases, of what went into the strange concoction that makes up most of my tales. It’s been fun to put the disparate pieces together that form the foundation of a story, and the layers that go on top. Nothing I write is surface level horror, there’s always something more (ah, yes—something more!) that may not be present, but with the reminiscing, some things have surfaced that I may have forgotten, until now. Better yet, the stories that are fresher in my head, I’ve been able to really dig into what went into their creation, such as the bear on the mountain incident that triggered “This Darkness…” or the whole, bizarre mix of elements—a note dropped in Joe R. Lansdale’s mailbox, the music of Depeche Mode, a stroll along a path adjacent to farmland in Rome—that went into the mental mixer of “Personal Jesus.” I’ve not gotten there yet, but when I write the story notes blog for “The Land Lord,” one might be surprised to know one of the major stylistic influences was the movie, Jacob’s Ladder. You’ll see how when I get to it, but it was huge.
As for my process, again, yes, for me, the confirmation that it’s never some single idea that makes a story, no single image, ha, even as an image might be key to the all-around success, there’s always a lot going on. Just as I like it.
HN: Along those lines, while it would be out of bounds to ask if you have a favorite story in this collection (although you could still tell us…), without breaching decorum we can instead ask if there is a story in here that you found particularly satisfying or cathartic to write? Was there one that you struggled with, but ultimately bested? What about one that you are happy will now be released to a wider audience?
JCS: Sometimes the hardest tales to complete are the one’s most cathartic, because the path to completion has finally been attained. “The Land Lord” went through multiple character manifestations before settling back on the original couple, just clarifying their voices; that’s one of those stories that takes years, because it didn’t find its rhythm from the get-go, it stumbled, stopped, moved down different avenues, then came back to where it needed to be. There was one version that had a gay goth couple as the protagonists! (I liked them; they may end up in their own tale…) That would have been a completely different beast.
Satisfaction comes for different reasons. The subtle, surreal finale to “The Wounded Table” pleases me. The fully immersive, drug-fueled voice of Erika Jonkers in “The Johnny Depp Thing,” even as the tale is deeply weird and almost comical at times, the tale is firm in tone, never wavering. The fact that I could successfully pull off “Beautiful,” perhaps the hardest tale to write as the voice there was so different than any I had used before. All of these stories bring something to make me smile, otherwise they would not have made it into the collection.
I think the tale that brings me the most joy that readers can finally read it would be “The Glove.” I consider it one of my handful of best tales, something that touches on elements I want to explore more as I evolve as a writer, already mentioned: true weirdness, the “other,” as well as a stronger use of image as balanced by subtleties, to lend strength, etc. And even at that, it contains one of my favorite paragraphs I’ve ever written, a paragraph that has nothing to do with the weird elements, the exploration of the “other,” no, it’s a paragraph about love, how Allie Cahler’s boyfriend, Jesse, perceives their relationship, as he dangles a plastic baggie of heroin in front of her face. That makes me happy. I’m heavy into character studies and that moment hit me in the right spot.
But who’s to know what will work for the readers? Does any of what I think matter? No. I can only do the best I can and continue to explore deeper and deeper into all facets of storytelling.
HN: Finally, what can we expect to see next? What sort of concrete plans do you have in the immediate future, but also what kind of nebulous ideas and plans are beginning to take shape?
JCS: The concrete plans are set: My tale, “Normal,” will appear in the Test Patterns: Creature Features anthology, and that one is quite different for me as it’s laced with a quirky, pitch-black sense of humor. “American Ghost,” which contains a sequence which required I adapt my style to that of another famous writer, will appear in The Leaves of a Necronomicon, edited by Joe Pulver; it’s been a long time coming. I’m excited to get this one out, because it’s another tale I sense is one of my best, but again, what do I know? I leave that up to the readers, as one should.
Nebulous plans are the foundation for many a writer’s life, haha… I have two long pieces in progress, both of which I hope to have completed by the end of the year, or early next year at the latest. I’m working on a special project with my poet/translator (and now short story writer, too—she just finished her first short tale and it’s exquisite!) girlfriend, Alessandra, that I’m not saying more about until we’re deeper into it, but the subject matter has fueled other writing outside of the project. Short stories are flowing write now as I type this—right now, not write, oy! –as my imagination has been on fire. Words matter, and I’m learning how to wield them a little better every day.
Thank you so much for this interview, Gordon. It’s been a blast!
John Claude Smith has published two collections (The Dark is Light Enough for Me and Autumn in the Abyss), four chapbooks (Dandelions, Vox Terrae, The Anti-Everything, and The Wrath of Concrete and Steel), and two novels. Riding the Centipede was published by Omnium Gatherum in 2015 and was a Bram Stoker Award finalist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The Wilderness Within was published by Trepidatio/JournalStone in October of 2017. His third collection, Occasional Beasts: Tales, has just been published, and includes 14 tales and 92k of weird horror. He splits his time between the East Bay of northern California, across from San Francisco, and Rome, Italy, where his heart resides always.
Occasional Beasts: Tales: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DZ6X8C5/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i9