Carly Holmes and I speak about our short stories “A Shadow Flits” and “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning” from the anthology Pareidolia from UK Publisher Black Shuck Books

Earlier this summer author Carly Holmes and I spoke with each other about our short stories that appear in the anthology Pareidolia edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth from Black Shuck Books.


DB:  Could you tell readers about your writing? Particularly your short story collection Figurehead?

CH: Figurehead is a collection of horror/strange stories, published by Tartarus Press last year. Though I’ve never defined myself as any particular ‘type’ of writer I’ve always been drawn, as a reader and as a writer, to stories that have a darkness, a hint of something unsettling and unknown, in them. I’ve never written fiction from my own lived experience, preferring always to write what I don’t know. Horror, I think, allows us to explore the places that lurk beneath the skin of everyday life: the fears, longings and anxieties that we experience transfigured and externalised in an attempt to make sense of them. In Figurehead there’s a lot of tension between the domestic and the wild, a yearning for both the freedom of the wild and the safety of the home. My novel, The Scrapbook, had elements of this and of the supernatural, but was more concerned with a fascination with prizing absent loved ones over present, holding secrets close, and reconstructing the past to suit a version of the here and now.

DB:  How does your short story “A Shadow Flits” fit in or differ from the stories in Figurehead?

CH: Figurehead ranges across supernatural horror, rural gothic, folk horror and the uncanny to the just plain weird, so I’d say “A Shadow Flits” would slide easily into that pack. On the surface of it it’s about pareidolia, but it’s really about guilt and loss and the fear of contamination separating us from our loved ones.

DB: What did you think when the editors presented the concept of Pareidolia? Have you ever experienced the phenomenon?

CH: I had to look it up and do some research to get a handle on what it meant! It’s a fascinating condition. Though I’ve never experienced pareidolia I do experience anxiety and when it’s running loose anything moving at the edges of my vision, a leaf floating past or a strand of my own hair lifting in the breeze, triggers a ‘Danger!’ response, bypassing rational thought and casting me into an immediate state of panic. So, in a way I’m seeing things that aren’t there, turning the everyday into horror… I also have a mild form of prosopagnosia, face blindness, so I have to concentrate hard to bring people into a realm of familiarity, focussing on areas of their face and the shapes they form that might conjure recognition. Even when I know I know someone, I often don’t know from where. (I didn’t recognise my own father once, walked straight past him at a train station where we supposed to meet, and didn’t understand why this strange man was speaking my name and looking so confused!)

DB: “A Shadow Flits” effectively creates and plays with the tension between what in the story might be psychological and what in the story might be supernatural. What was your process in working in the concept of Pareidolia to that balance?

CH:  Whenever I write horror I leave the edges of the story blurred, for myself and the reader to construct their own version of what might be happening. In “Sleep” for example (which was originally published in Figurehead and is being reprinted in Best Horror of the Year Volume 11) the child, Boo, feels a compulsion to take the life from anyone or anything that sleeps. I never explain what he does or why, and the story focusses on his mother’s efforts to cope with him and contain his actions, so the reader can interpret the story as supernatural horror or psychological. With “A Shadow Flits” I started with the idea of a child desperately ill from something unnamed and unknown, and the parents’ responses to that sudden awful situation. I let the concept of pareidolia work its way in as a symbol of the father’s guilt and the recovery of his own childhood memories. As a theme it was a real gift, there was so much scope to go in so many different ways. I just went with it, really, and worked out how my story would end when I got there. That tends to be how I write: I start with an image, or an urge to explore a certain experience, and take it from there.

DB: What about the genres and categories of Horror, Literary Horror, and Strange Tales interests you most as a writer? How does genre, if at all, come into play in your creative process?

CH: Literary Horror and Strange Tales are my true loves, though I didn’t know that was what I was writing; I thought I was just writing stories. I’m wary of highlighting what I see as the differences between straight-up horror and literary horror as there’s a lot of snobbishness in the mainstream literary world about horror writing and I wouldn’t want to denigrate anyone who favours the slasher/splatter approach, but for me more ‘literary’ horror writing has so much depth to it, so much subtext. It really is, for me anyway, about fear, shame, yearning, repressed anger, unacknowledged grief… It’s weird, I never saw myself as a writer of any specific genre, I’ve only ever written what I’ve felt compelled to by my own curiosity or confusion, but I’m liking being in the horror fold. You’re all a great bunch.



Carly author pic


Questions for Daniel:

Could you tell readers about your writing? You’ve got a wide range of fiction published to date, spanning a plethora of outlets and genres, from horror to fantasy to sci-fi.

Like you, literary horror and strange tales are my loves and where I seem to fit in. I did not realize what genre I was writing or that fit my stories best until relatively recently. I think this came from not being well read in nor knowing much about the rich history and wide world of genre stories out there.  Some of my earlier stories were published in slipstream and interstitial zines like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Full Unit Hook Up, and Electric Velocipede which gave me the idea that there was something interstitial about my short stories.

Having a few stories published in Cemetery Dance Magazine opened my eyes to the possibility that my work might fit somewhere in the broad category of horror. I learned much about horror from reading Cemetery Dance and reading the range of stories they published. Around the time when I was asked to put together my first collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales I also learned about Robert Aickman and his stories, and the notion of strange tales. Looking back, it was a dividing line to me in terms of my self-perception of where my work fits in. Robert Aickman and the controlled ambiguity in his fiction is something that inspires me and something I love to see in fiction such as your story and editor James Everington’s work.

I also feel most at home with horror as I feel it is the genre that “took me in” and that is broad enough to welcome and fit my often interstital stories. Cemetery Dance has been incredibly supportive, including me in the recent anthology Shivers 8 alongside an original story by Stephen King. My first novel The Serpent’s Shadow is coming very soon from Cemetery Dance.

How do you respond to themed submission calls? Do you prefer having that structure, knowing what you’re writing about, or would you rather an ‘open’ call for fiction?

If I had to choose one answer to this question I would prefer ‘open’ calls. Although I do not write to themed calls much. I’d like to. There are so many I find interesting and so many creative things being done. I simply do not write fast enough to submit to those I would like to. I could not turn down the opportunity to submit to Pareidolia because the element of ambiguity fits so closely with the kind of stories I like to write.

Your story, “How to Stay Afloat While Drowning” has a strong sense of place. Is creating a real and full location important to your writing/how does that impact on the story you’re telling?

Often the place is my inspiration and what I intend to write about. Once I have the setting I often dream up the characters I think could best manifest the stories and unique qualities of a given place. Part of my default process is that characters and then their struggles grow out of a location. In that way location impacts the story. I’m happy when it winds up when I get a story that could only be told in that specific place. Even when my ideas do not begin with a location creating a real and full setting is very important to my writing. I like to read stories that make me feel like I am visiting or inhabiting a place. Since my teens the authors Lucius Shepard and Tanith Lee were my favourites. Both have a very strong sense of place in their work. I that it at first having strong settings in my writing came without thinking and now it is a conscious thing I trace to their influence.

I’m really interested to read how all the authors in this anthology will interpret the theme, and where they’ll take it. For your story I’m curious: why sharks? Did you have the idea for a great shark story that fit the theme, or did you have other ideas as well? Are sharks something that particularly scare you?

I’m very excited to read all the stories too. I have a sense of excitement from not knowing where these stories might lead. James and Dan have assembled a roster with the talent and imagination to take us anywhere.

I always have a bunch of stories in “the idea” stage. When choosing what to write for this project I had a couple of images I wanted see if I could tie together into a story that fit the call. The first image was of when I had once seen a shark beaten much like the first shark death that happens in the story. The other image was of someone thinking they see a “shark-face” on someone and was born out of my thinking a lot about the short story “Because Their Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee. The Tanith Lee story is one of my favourites and in the back of my mind I wondered if it was possibly to create a short story in homage. The homage story has not yet happened though I am glad contemplating birthed the inspirational image for this one. Why sharks? Sharks do scare me but there is also something wonderous and inextricably linked to the vast, unknowable sea about them. “Because Their Skin is Finer” is about a hunter / fisherman who has given up the vocation. That and the few times I’ve encountered sharks in my life got me thinking about them. The ambiguity of what is or is not real and the notion that what the narrator is seeing may be supernatural or may be psychological brought the idea into its own territory that I wanted to submit to James and Dan for the book.

What did you think when the editors presented the concept of pareidolia? Have you ever experienced the phenomenon?

I also had to look it up. Reading the definition, I realized I had heard about the phenomenon even though I did not recognize the name. I recalled hearing about theories that there is something innate about us, about our minds that want to make sense of things, that we want to see patterns and faces, even when the might not be one out there in the world we are observing. I think I may have encountered this coming across those “faces” in the photographs of the planet Mars.

I remember making out faces in patterned wallpaper as a child and wonder if this is the same thing. When I was contemplating considering how to use the concept of Pareidolia in a dramatic structure I knew that I wanted to present a character that was seeing things and offer the reader a story where it was equally plausible that the cause of what they were seeing was supernatural or psychological. You did such a wonderful job of just that in your story in the book: “A Shadow Flits”.

Unlike fiction that’s ‘Realist’, and preoccupied with external, current events, horror writing tends towards a much stronger reliance on the imagination. Do you have any writerly rituals or routines? How easily do the ideas come to you?

For me the ideas are the easy part. I’m always dreaming and daydreaming and thinking about ideas. I tend to see the world through the lens of “story”. Everyone around us is a story. We are constantly intersecting with people in different places in our own and each other’s stories. What is important to me as a writer is to give myself the gift of time, to honour and protect that time. In many ways the shape of my adult life is one big ritual to support that choice.

I do have routines like having favourite places and favourite times of day to write when given a choice. I know it is cliché, but it is such a luxury and a gift to be writing and creating in pleasant circumstances like a coffee shop or a faraway place. I try to give myself that gift when circumstances allow. I always return to the importance of “showing up”. Showing up on the page. When situations are not ideal, or in hard times, or busy times, or in when I’m not immediately feeling the spark and sparkle of inspiration I feel it is necessary to show up on the page for the story and project and do the work to complete it and bring it to life. I am not always successful in this. On the days that I manage to, I feel most like a writer. Writing to the theme and the deadline of this book was a fantastic challenge. I very much wanted to deliver a story good enough for the book. As an American writer it is a great thrill be in a British publication alongside of such outstanding writers.


braum author 2016

Pareidolia edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth can be ordered from the publisher or Amazon UK and Amazon USA


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