After a brief hiatus, we’re back with a new Deep Cuts interview! Today’s story is Michael Griffin’s “The Lure of Devouring Light” (via Apex Magazine). Michael is an accomplished author of dark fiction with work appearing in numerous journals and anthologies, including his debut collection The Lure of Devouring Light (Word Horde, 2016). We’re incredibly pleased to have him join us to discuss that title story below.
“The Lure of Devouring Light” revolves around cellist Lia and her relationship with the mad musical genius Mészáros as they prepare for a revolutionary production of a 29-hour opera. Mészáros has certain rituals and preparations for performance, which Lia is both drawn to and repulsed by, yet she cannot fully pull away from the temptation. However, as the night progresses and the lure of success increases while the depth of the sacrifice demanded is revealed, themes of power imbalance and abuse must be confronted.
Along the way to Griffin’s superb prose builds dazzling sensory spectacles layer by layer. Beyond the vivid visuals, readers can find particular joy in the way Griffin’s descriptions of music and non-verbal sound build a hallucinatory and overwhelming noise-scape that vibrates off the page. When the operatic conflict reaches its thunderous climax, it positively crackles.
If you haven’t yet read “The Lure of Devouring Light,” this is your last chance because, as you probably know, **SPOILERS FOLLOW.**
Hellnotes: Let’s start with the beginning: Where did the idea for “The Lure of Devouring Light” story originate? Although you’ve written other stories that explicitly reference other Weird texts (such as your story “No Mask to Conceal Her Voice” which draws on Robert W. Chambers’s King in Yellow mythos), are there any literary sources that inspired this story? Aside from direct inspiration, are there any texts that you see influencing or conversing with “The Lure of Devouring Light”?
Michael Griffin: The idea to write a story about classical music came when I saw an announcement about an anthology of horror stories about classical music edited by Des Lewis. My initial idea was to write about a guest musician who visits a university for a major performance, and this guest’s powerful talent draws in a younger musician, part of the ensemble, in such a way that they find it difficult to pull away even after harsher realities about the guest are revealed.
Though I’m interested in all kinds of classical music from Bach to the modern, I guessed most people would write about more familiar or “mainstream” pieces of music, and I wanted to try the more experimental side. Looking for ideas, I researched several twentieth century composers, including Philip Glass, John Adams, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and I think Luc Ferrari. Stockhausen actually wrote out quite specific and very strange instructions for the optimal preparation for a piece of his music, which involved days of isolation in silence, sleeplessness and fasting. This struck me as crazy in a wonderful way, and matched perfectly with the concept I had of the inspired but deranged performer.
Stockhausen wrote about preparation for Goldstaub, which means “gold dust,” and which connects to another piece of inspiration for the story. At the time I was making plans for this story, my wife and I went hiking around a very large nature park, and decided to take a shortcut so we could see the river, and possibly connect up with some other trails that I believed existed in another area of the park. The part in the story where Lia goes hiking to the point where she believes she might find Mészáros hiding is taken very directly from this hike. Our attempted shortcut led to where the only way to reach the fields we had in mind was to follow a deer trail, scale an extremely steep hill with sections of dirt that looked like gold dust was sprinkled in, and then swing beneath this dangerous wire fence hanging above a waterfall. I don’t think the gold specks in the soil were true gold, but this encounter connected with my research about Goldstaub.
HN: I’m a great admirer of works that have intricate structures, as well as hidden spines, which in this story seem to be suggested by the Karlheinz Stockhausen opera cycle Licht, which Lia and Mészáros are scheduled to perform. Licht is a cycle of seven operas and contains 29 hours of continuous music. Perhaps not coincidentally, this story has seven numbered sections and, although precise hours aren’t given, takes place over the course of roughly more than a single day.
At the risk of asking you to tip your hand, did Licht provide a structure for your story? If so, at what point did the story’s shape and the operatic structure start to come together? Were there other structural or thematic parallels or techniques that you drew either from Licht or other musical pieces?
MG: The seven sections of the story are certainly a connection to the seven parts of Licht. I hadn’t considered that the time duration of the story is approximately equal to that of the opera. You’re the first person to mention that, and it’s such an interesting observation I might have been tempted to put it into the story if I’d thought of it.
Beyond that, though, there aren’t elements from Licht or other works of Stockhausen in the story, other than that I made sure to reference what appeared to be gold dust in the soil during her hike to the point where she finds Mészáros meditating.
HN: In this story, there appears to be two devouring elements, each of which possesses its own lure. Mészáros is a devouring darkness, aware that aspiring artists—both Lia and his prior victim Celia Popp—are tempted to give in to him in the hopes that they might emerge with the secret of his perceived genius. But there is another devouring power in the form of the light—represented as a bright woman with antlers that Lia alternatively interprets as a goddess, a muse, or even Celia Popp exacting karmic retribution. Mészáros’s attempt to summon this muse, to purify himself to reach new artistic heights, ends up in his own destruction because of his past sins.
Leaving aside Mészáros’s sexual predation for the moment (which we can discuss below), are these two devouring powers separate, or are they different aspects of the same singular force? In the end, Lia has attained a mix of both “[Mészáros’s] morbid darkness mingled with aspects of [the Muse’s] brighter spirit,” but how might readers approach trying to separate these aspects? Is there a way, or even a compelling reason, to do so?
MG: The most obvious element that devours is definitely Mészáros, who uses up all those who surround him, eager to be near his talent and seemingly oblivious to what he’s taking from them until it’s too late.
The story is really about attraction to things that are destructive to us, and how sometimes even recognizing the destructive aspect isn’t enough to save us. Lia is drawn to Mészáros, not only his talent and his brilliance but also his stature, his fame and reputation. While she struggles to find outlets for her work, she wishes for what he has in these respects. Even after the controversy over Celia Popp really blows up, though Lia finds herself disgusted by him and tries to keep her distance, she still reveres his talent and loves to immerse herself in his work.
I think the bright feminine force which arrives to interrupt Mészáros attempting to victimize Lia is most interesting if it retains some mystery. Is it something that arises out of Lia herself, or Mészáros, or the art they share? I lean toward believing it’s an instrument of vengeance evoked or sent by the spirit of Celia Popp, whom Lia later discovers happened to die at almost exactly this time.
HN: One of the key ideas in this story seems to be the lengths that people will go to achieve transformation. On the one hand, Mészáros starts the story engaged in the (comparatively) minor eccentricities of asceticism and isolation as prescribed by Stockhausen himself for playing Goldstaub, but the reader learns that he has also tried drinking his own blood and, more horribly, intentionally ruins women. While Mészáros is a user of people, which here is dramatized by his being a sexual abuser and a mind-destroyer, in many ways he could be a stand in for any sufficiently extreme using behavior (he says, “The needs I have are not the needs other people have,” which is not far from what many artists would say).
On the other hand, the aspiring musicians, Lia and Celia Popp, are willing to risk sacrificing themselves to Mészáros’s devouring darkness in an attempt to glean some of it for own. Their willingness to flirt with death for their art is resonant with the way that artists sometimes turn to excessive and self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse.
What is your view of sacrifice and art, both personal sacrifice and the sacrifice of others? Could readers view Lia’s final state as an optimal artistic condition of incorporating both sides, but finding moderation between the two?
MG: As for Celia Popp, I don’t think she understood the risks involved with being be mentored by Mészáros. She was purely a victim of exploitation, too young to know what she was up against.
Lia is a clearer case of compromising, or let’s say she tried to convince herself to accept the creepy aspects of a person because she respects his art and reputation. The story begins after she has removed herself from their relationship, which seems to have been consensual, until Lia became bothered enough to end it and stay away from him.
As elements of the Celia Popp story became public, on top of that we can easily imagine as Mészáros acting like a pig and an asshole toward her, Lia put an end to their affair. Even then, she didn’t force him to leave her retreat in the woods, she didn’t tell the University administrators about it, and certainly didn’t try to put a stop to the Licht performance, of which she herself planned to remain part. That’s not at all to say that Lia bears responsibility for Mészáros’s acts, but only to illustrate how hard it can be for an ambitious, driven person to sever themselves from opportunities, even if they come as part of a package deal with someone toxic.
As to your last point, I believe it’s important to sacrifice for art, but if you get to the point of sacrificing your basic humanity and grinding up everyone and everything in your life, you won’t last long. Moderation is much better, yes.
HN: Although this story was first published in 2013, its themes involving toxic masculinity are still unfortunately very relevant and distressingly evergreen in their topicality. Here, Mészáros represents a particularly prescient example of the artist as enfant terrible whose genius and success compels others to forgive his bad actions. Even Lia—who is a strong protagonist—finds herself susceptible to this lure, although that is relatively short-lived. By the end of the story, however, Mészáros gets his comeuppance in a particularly satisfying fashion and there is a sense of resolution.
What do you think is the importance of fiction, particularly speculative fiction in the Weird or horror mode, in exploring these kinds of themes? Aside from literalizing the dark elements of certain behaviors, does being able to offer a judgment and balancing of the scales play a role?
MG: You’re right that this sort of predatory male behavior is very much in the news right now, but it has probably always existed. Especially with a younger woman dealing with an older man who is powerful or entitled, I think this kind of thing is unfortunately so common that it’s not even surprising when it does happen.
Lia seems willing to deal with some of his behavior, at least for a while. It’s a price she’s willing to pay to be near Mészáros for the sake of his greatness in the realm of music, until she must back away because of his problematic behavior, and the revelations of the serious crime against Celia Popp.
I’m not sure if Weird and Horror fiction are better for approaching themes of abuse and retribution, but they do allow different ways of depicting the comeuppance or the payment of a terrible price, other than just having the victim strike back with a weapon, or police investigators close in.
HN: For readers who don’t know, you have a background as an electronic/ambient musician and as the founder of the Hypnos Recording label. Aside from being able to draw on musical world-building details—such as the musical terms and equipment in this story or the evocative descriptions of sound—do you find that your interests in these areas bleed over into one another in thematic or conceptual ways? Do you see the influence of your music on your writing or vice versa?
MG: There’s certainly a lot of music-making nuts and bolts in this story, and though I don’t have experience with creating classical music, the music being made in this story has aspects of improvisation, and incorporates some of the tools I work with, such as looping devices, and effects like reverb. I focused on these details not because I wanted to show off things I know, but because I wanted the music to start off being a very tangible thing, created with ordinary, physical tools. It does build up to become strange and otherworldly, but it begins with a man and his musical instruments, surrounded by microphones and cables and amplifiers and speakers.
Some people who are familiar with both my writing and my ambient music say they see similarities, and others say I seem to take obviously different approaches to music and writing. I’m not sure I can judge whether there are similarities, but I know I do work a lot of references to music and musicians into some of my stories. In addition to this one, there’s “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun” (from the Dim Shores anthology Looming Low) which not only focuses a lot on ambient music, but also the running of an independent record label. Other stories don’t involve anybody making music, but they might refer to what people are listening to. I suppose this is a way of imposing a soundtrack on the story. Even if the readers aren’t hearing it as they’re reading, I hear it.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar? What about if they want something completely different?
MG: For those who really like the strange music element, there’s the story just mentioned in Looming Low. Another story I’ve heard some refer to as notable is “Diamond Dust,” from the Thomas Ligotti tribute, The Grimscribe’s Puppets. That book won the Shirley Jackson Award, so you can’t go too far wrong with that one, apart from my story. The one story of mine that has probably been singled out for praise more than any other is the novella “Far From Streets,” which is in my collection, The Lure of Devouring Light. I should also have a new book, my second collection, coming out in 2018.
Michael Griffin has released a novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone (Journalstone, 2017), a short fiction collection, The Lure of Devouring Light (Word Horde, 2016), and the novella An Ideal Retreat (Dim Shores, 2016). His short stories have appeared in magazines like Apex, Black Static, Lovecraft eZine and Strange Aeons, and the anthologies The Madness of Dr. Caligari, Autumn Cthulhu, the Shirley Jackson Award winner The Grimscribe’s Puppets, The Children of Old Leech and Eternal Frankenstein. He’s an ambient musician and founder of Hypnos Recordings, an ambient record label he operates with his wife in Portland, Oregon. Michael blogs at griffinwords.com. On Twitter, he posts as @mgsoundvisions.