Author Mike Lester and I share a Table of Contents in the Independent Legions Anthology the Beauty of Death along with a ton of the most exciting writers including Peter Straub, John Skipp, John Claude Smith, Shane McKenzie, Poppy Z. Brite, Colleen Anderson, Nick Mamatas, and Maria Alexander to name but a few. I’m so pleased to welcome Mike to my blog to talk about Weird Fiction and our stories. This week Mike talks about my story How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone. In the post to follow soon I will talk about his story Black-Eyed Susan and throw a few of my questions over to him.
Please welcome Mike Lester.
First Impressions: Meeting Daniel Braum
by Mike Lester
My favorite part of attending writers conferences and conventions is the parties. I’m not talking about the official receptions listed in the event program; no, I’m talking about the room parties where you’re likely to find thirty or forty people jammed into an average-sized hotel room along with ice-filled bathtubs loaded with beer. There’s usually a bottle of harder stuff being passed around among the clusters of animated conversation as well.
This eternal scenario repeated itself in May 2016 when my wife Jodi and I attended StokerCon in Las Vegas. We’d had a good night meeting up with old friends followed by dinner with one of Jodi’s clients who was nominated for an award that year (which he ended up winning), and I’d done a reading to a not-so-empty-as-I’d-feared room. Somewhere between the reading and our room, someone mentioned a party to us. “It’s up on the eighth floor,” they said, “room such and such.” In truth, I don’t remember the floor or room number, but you get the drift. It was running late, after midnight, and for a moment I was certain it would be over by the time we made it up.
“Mike, don’t be an idiot,” Jodi said to me as the elevator doors closed in front of us. “This is Las Vegas, there’s no clock here, and besides, nobody knows how to party like neurotic horror writers.” She hit the button and we started up.
And, by God, she was right. The crowd had trimmed out, only ten or so people remained, but the positive energy in the room was immediately apparent. As we stepped in we were welcomed by a smiling fellow with close-cropped hair.
“Come on in! Welcome! Help yourself to a drink. There’s beer in the tub.”
He introduced himself as Daniel Braum. And then a wonderful thing happened. We cut right through the usual bullshit small talk and had one of those conversations that seem to get better and better with each utterance. The magic words were “Robert Aickman.”
Something happens when two devotees of Aickman meet; there is instant recognition and an unspoken respect is earned—as if one’s mental mediocrity filter says “Relax…this guy gets it.”
I remember mentioning how I was first drawn to Aickman because he stood between two worlds, more so than any other writer I’ve ever encountered, with one foot firmly planted in mundane reality, while the other seemed to precariously balance in a strange reality of its own. “Another place” had been the only way I’d ever been able to label Aickman’s unreal reality. Daniel’s eyes lit up at the mention of this.
“Night Time Logic,” he said.
Night Time Logic. The phrase was perfect. It captured everything I’d felt but couldn’t quite pin down. Different from the twisted reality of dreams, Night Time Logic, though a close cousin to dreaming, presents the strange and bizarre as a matter of fact, a given to be accepted as more real than reality. Stories like Aickman’s “Ravissante” or “Bind Your Hair” are perfect examples of this. It’s something I’d been trying to achieve with my own writing, and to find a living, breathing kindred spirit in Daniel was an immense relief. Nighttime wanderers can be a lonely bunch.
We talked, Daniel, Jodi, and I, for a long time on Aickman, the occult, writing. Ten people became six, then three. We finally had to break it off when somebody took the bottle opener with them.
“But hey,” Daniel said. “I’m doing a reading tomorrow at one in the Red Rock room.”
We’d be there, I promised.
I can be notoriously flaky sometimes, but I made sure to be at Red Rock by one. Just in time. I wanted to see if this guy could walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We made eye contact and gave each other the friendly nod of recognition before he took the podium. Game on.
The story he read was called “Music of the Spheres” (which is included in his new collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales).
And, by God, he pulled it off. At readings I usually sit at the back of the room with my eyes closed. This helps me concentrate on the reader’s voice and to visualize the story being read as a series of images. Daniel’s voice was assured—here was a writer who wrote with emotional intent rather than just words and paragraphs strung together to advance a narrative. And the images he spoke were fantastic—a sort of melding between Lovecraft’s cosmicism and Ligotti’s bizarre, mad, occult underworld populated by mad geniuses and artists. Or Blackwood’s novel The Human Chord, which concerns itself with tonal alchemy. Daniel’s story was at home in these worlds, yet totally original. A close cousin to the masters.
By the time he finished, I was convinced. This guy definitely gets it. He’s the real deal. One of those writers whose work I will now read without question. Mental note taken.
We didn’t get to talk much for the remainder of the conference, just saying “hi” in passing, but it was a nice surprise to run into him again at the airport and learn we shared the same flight back to New York. We had another nice talk in the terminal, waiting for our plane, and I was delighted to learn we would both be included in Alessandro Manzetti’s new anthology The Beauty of Death. Always nice to know you’re sharing space between covers with quality.
When The Beauty of Death was finally released, I was excited to read several of the stories—I’d read Peter Straub’s Blue Rose previously, but that one is always worth re-reading, and Ramsey Campbell, another favorite of mine, never fails to impress. But it was Daniel’s story I was most curious about. Even the title, “How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone,” was impressively evocative. Could he do it again, I wondered. Was his reading in Vegas just a fluke? Was I still hungover from the night before? (Yes, but that is beside the point.)
I need not have feared. “How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone” solidified (pardon the pun) my first impression of the man and his work. Obviously, I couldn’t read this one with my eyes closed, but the images came fluidly nonetheless. And, once again, I’d entered the realm of Night Time Logic. “How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone” is a brighter, less menacing story than “The Music of the Spheres,” but this does not decrease its strangeness. If anything this seaside brightness only enhances the very strangeness of the situation. The weird tail via John Updike, if you will. Is this world he’s writing about our reality? Yes, the basilisk is a real lizard, but it is also a creature of myth, able to immobilize with a glance, turning men into stone. And here the basilisks are capable of just that.
Early on in the story, when Francois and Michaela are sitting at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, there is this:
One of the creatures they call a bat, a thing more like a mad cross between a bird and a firefly, spirals from the seaside caves into the coming night. Foot-long, black wings extend to catch the wind and the “bat” bursts into golden flames. The bio-luminescent halo of light does not consume it as it glides leaving a glowing trail of its path through the sky that lingers.
“Why do they do it?” Michaela says.
“I don’t know. It must feel right. Small brains. Bad eyes. They don’t navigate by sight or reason.”
And here is the crux of the whole matter.
On my first reading, this passage immediately made me think of a series of etchings by Max Klinger, collectively titled Paraphrase on the Discovery of a Glove. The penultimate etching features a large, bat-like thing, a prehistoric amphibious-looking monstrosity flying through the shards of a broken window, a woman’s glove clenched in its jaws as a man’s arms can be seen desperately reaching after it. This particular etching in the series is titled Abduction (it is also alternatively referred to as Theft and also as Seizure). And that seems to be the heart of Francois’s problem as well. He’s been blinded by a woman. He does not navigate by reason; it’s been abducted and his emotional free will petrified. Turned to stone.
Interestingly, Klinger’s series of etchings begin in the mundane, real world wherein a man finds a discarded woman’s glove at a roller rink. The series progresses through ten plates, each increasingly bizarre and unreal.
Night Time Logic.
And yet this world is so very real, despite the eight-foot basilisks and bats with fiery tails. What Braum is writing about is that most real of subjects, emotional blindness and the power women have over men in this arena. Being taken for granted. Being discarded like a glove at a roller rink—discarded so often one emotionally turns to stone.
Much like Jean Ray’s novel as well as Harry Kümel’s film Malpertuis, we find ourselves in a world where myth is reality—myth fused with the everyday, commonplace problems of real people.
Night Time Logic.
1. What do you consider to be the most successful story or novel, or even film, in the portrayal of Night Time Logic?
What a fun question to mull over. My first thought went right to Robert Aickman’s The Swords. Ask me again and I might hone in on something else. In the Swords the speculative element is not explained. The rules of “what is happening” are not presented. Aickman could have told us were are seeing an alien. Or a robot. Or a vampire or other supernatural entity. He could have told us we are witnessing someone with a magic power. But he does not and yet the story satisfies. The story gives us the protagonist’s emotional experience and emotional shift in response to an unexplained phenomena. We the reader(s) experience it, believe in it, and are uneasy with it not for any reason we can concretely spell out. We feel the “night time” logic that is not governed by “known” rules or linear cause and effect logic.
I’m even more excited about how night time logic can be used in film. The film It Follows is one that divides many horror fans. I think this is because of the decision of the film makers to use night time logic in presenting their story. I love the film. An interesting observation is that those who love it and those who feel it doesn’t work often cite the same elements and same things as their reasons why. Which is why I often use the film as a “litmus” test of sorts to see if a person is familiar with or pleased by night time logic. I see please by because one of the joys, at least for me, is when you don’t see it coming, when you don’t expect it, and you just feel and experience it.
The “rules” of the supernatural element in It Follows are “mostly” unexplained. I say mostly because the film differs from The Swords in that the film misleads us by “giving us” rules. Early in the film one character purports to know what is going on and very dramatically tells another character and thus the viewers. Yet in later acts these “rules” are blatantly subverted. Part of the delight for me is seeing and experiencing that these rules are just wrong and not the rules at all. This aspect (not following its own “rules”) has been a frequent source of criticism of the film. I believe that this structure is intentional and for me it operates to make me feel like I am in the same deep water as the characters. In many ways the movie looks like and is structured like a “typical” horror movie. Yet the method of the real scares and what is most disturbing to me about the movie is very different. And for these reasons, this use of Night Time Logic makes it one of the most successful horror movies for me.
I must point out that the first time I heard the phrase Night Time Logic was from my teacher the author Lee Battersby. I learned from Kelly Link who has written extensively on the topic that the term was coined by author Howard Waldrop.
2. Do you see any major shift in the weird tale subgenre, for better or worse? These may be stylistic, thematic, or simply concern the business end of the genre, such as markets or lack thereof.
I almost passed on this question. Although I’ve been writing for a decade and a half I am woefully behind and lacking in my knowledge of genre in general and of the sub-genre. It has been a delightful game of catch up as I learn, and read, and listen, and explore and find out and try to figure out what is a weird tale or a strange tale.
Although I’d heard the terms in passing I wasn’t paying attention to the term strange tale and the weird fiction sub genre until late in 2014. I attended a panel on Robert Aickman at the World Fantasy Convention in 2014 moderated by author Simon Strantzas. Simon’s work is strongly influenced by Aickman and he is the editor of the Shirely Jackson Award winning anthology Aickman’s Heirs published by Undertow Press who bring us the Year’s Best Weird Fiction series. The panelists, in particular Peter Straub and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, discussed Robert Aickman and his approach to writing. I rushed out and bought a copy of Cold Hand in Mine and read the Swords for the first time that night.
I did not grow up reading Lovecraft. Any “weird tale” that I read or might have read were without the benefit of knowing the context and lineage. So this was the beginning point when I realized that a certain portion of my work might actually fit in to a larger context and that I might actually have a viable term for my work and genre to “fit” into. I knew most of my work either crossed-genres or fell outside most opinions of what any given genre was or was supposed to be. I mention this in my answer because I haven’t been exposed to or thinking about the weird tale as a genre long enough to present myself as someone informed enough to comment on any major shifts.
That said, I can report on my limited experience. The Weird as a genre from my vantage seems to be enjoying an upswing in visibility and popularity. Trends come and go of course. I have no idea what this surge might mean in historical context or for the future. Many people more experienced than me have said this is a grand or even golden time for the genre. I’ve also heard that the small press publishers have a lot to do with this.
I’m particularly thankful for small press publisher Cemetery Dance for including me and my work in their definition of what “horror” is. Over the past decade my work and strange tales from other authors writing today have found homes for their stories at Cemetery Dance. Cemetery Dance has been around for over twenty five years and is a name people closely associate with horror having published so many influential authors over the years. To get back to your question about shifts, I think it speaks to a shift that my first collection a book of strange tales is published by Cemetery Dance eBooks. Credit and gratitude is due to my editor, author Norman Prentiss for conceiving the collection and green lighting its presentation as a collection of strange tales. Norman and the editors of Cemetery Dance are not only publishing traditional horror but are also publishing work on the edges and borderlands of the genre. This perhaps is a quiet shift that has been going on for some time now. I’m pleased to be able to drop a bit of a hint with a wink that Cemetery Dance has more Weird Fiction and Strange Tales en route.
California publisher Dim Shores press is also a leader in championing the Weird. They have been recently publishing limited small edition runs of the some of the best weird fiction out there. After by author Scott Nicolay is a wonderful that I think for many reasons is destined to become a classic. The Beauty of Death Publisher and Editor Alessandro Manzetti of Independent Legions included our stories and Jean Claude Smith’s story in their massive tome including our kind of work proudly alongside all the different kinds of horror being written and published today. Mainstream media and publishing has also been embracing the strange. Tor.com released Victor LaValle’s masterpiece novella The Ballad of Black Tom and Netflix produced the original series Strange Things to much fanfare.
3. Does your writing come from a personal place? Are these experiences in some way yours, or do you focus more on story as an exterior construct, removing yourself from the process as much as possible?
Robert Aickman had the best response to this. He refused to talk about his writing. Period. Even his close friends and associates stated that he said little to nothing to them over about where his writing came from.
On the one hand I think it can be fascinating to see the difference between an author’s intent and what makes it on the page and even what makes it into a readers mind. I recently did a reading that had the audience laughing. Which is great, only I did not intend the story to be funny. My intent was to unsettle and frighten. Talking to the audience after they did find it scary but also humorous and irreverent, go figure.I guess so long as a story works for a reader, no matter what the author’s intent then I think that story works.
Often writers do use personal experience to start the creative process. The phrase “kill your darlings” comes to my mind. Often authors find that the initial spark of truth that started the story going has to be jettisoned for the story to work. By “working” I mean for the story to “feel” real. Even if that attempted element “actually “is” real and true. To me it doesn’t matter if something is true or real if it doesn’t work. Feeling real and feeling right is so much more important. I plan on talking about this more in my next blog post about your story in Beauty of Death. For now, I will say “kill your darlings” is often sage advice
4. And finally, an easy one: Who are your favorite authors and what are their best works
Very easy. Lucius Shepard is on the top of my list. His short story The Jaguar Hunters remains as my favorite work of fiction. I often go back to this story just to enjoy it. Lately I’ve been re-reading it to try and figure it out. I could talk a lot about this story and hope to do so in the future so for now I will enthusiastically recommend this story to anyone who has not read it.
Kelly Link is also on the top of my list. Her short story Some Zombie Contingency Plans is one I come back to again and again. There are a lot of elements and techniques in play in the story and is an immensely effective and satisfying use of Night Time Logic to surprise and unsettle.
-END OF Q and A –
Thanks for stopping by with this blog post, Mike. In my post next week I’ll be sharing my reaction to your short story that appears in The Beauty of Death along with my questions for you. Until then I send you my gratitude and cheers.
You can find the Beauty of Death from Independent Legions Here:
The Night Marchers from Cemetery Dance eBooks can be found here:
Please check back next week when I will talk about Mike’s story Black-Eyed Susan and throw my interview questions over to him !