Pareidolia stories conversation with author Sarah Read

I had the opportunity to converse with author Sarah Read about her work and our short stories from the Pareidolia anthology edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth published by UK publisher Steve Shaw’s Black Shuck Books.

Here are my questions and Sarah’s answers about her short story “Into the Wood”

DB: Could you tell someone who might be new to your work a bit about your stories? (Is there one story, other than “Into the Wood” that you feel serves as a nice entry point into your writing?

SR: I tend to write stories that skew slightly Gothic, and a little bit weird. Often, there is an element of the supernatural that is ambiguous or metaphorical (or both). I like to write about families, and often from a child’s point of view. If I had to pick just one story for people to start with, it would probably be “The Hope Chest” which appeared in Black Static in November. I write a lot about people looking for home, for families, for a place of belonging. There are quite a few of them in my collection OUT OF WATER, and it’s certainly the main theme of my novel, THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD.


DB: Pareidolia is the tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. In “Into the Wood” we have a woman who sees faces in the whirls of wood paneling. As I mention in one of the answers to your questions, this is the closest I have come to experiencing the phenomenon. In the story I felt you expand the phenomenon to a psychological and emotional aspect. Not merely a sensory perception level. I found this incredibly effective. The lines “Desperation, I guess looks a lot like compassion. Resignation looks like patience.” These are absolutely wonderful lines and to me were the keys to or lens through which I saw the story. How did you approach the Pareidolia theme of the anthology and what inspired you to present not only a definitional presentation of the phenomenon but a skillful extrapolation?

SR: One of the reasons I was so excited when James approached me about the project is that I experience Pareidolia almost constantly. In fact, I was experiencing the auditory version of the phenomenon even as I read his email. I used to invent stories about all the images I saw in the plaster of my bedroom ceiling as a child. I would not take a bath in the downstairs bathroom because of the sinister faces in the grain of the door, especially when paired with the deep voice and dark music I could hear in the overhead fan. To complicate matters, I’m also quite face blind–likely because I have always had severe vision issues that went unnoticed until I was ten, when I first saw an eye doctor. I didn’t know, as a wee kid, that I was essentially blind. I recognized people by the patterns of light on their bodies, their overall shape, or their voices. I’ve never gotten very good at recognizing faces outside of their contexts. I have an easier time seeing faces that aren’t there than faces that are, in other words. I thought about how much easier it might be for me to identify people if they didn’t have actual faces, but shapes approximating faces–like the ones in the wood grain of panels. There’s a loneliness in that, I think, that is the seed from which the horror of the story grew.


DB: The title “Into the Wood” evokes a Fairy Tale. The main character is a woman who works in the adult services industry via phone who cannot remember / recognize faces who is looking for a “home”. She sees the world as nests and a series of bird metaphors. Writers such as Angela Carter and Tanith Lee present “updated” Fairy Tales where the worst dangers to women are not only the supernatural but the men and perils of their Patriarchal worlds. How do the Fairy Tales of any time period inform the story and choice of title?

SR: I deliberately left the “s” off the title, so it would be “Into the Wood”, because I wanted to play with the different meanings of the title. I did want it to evoke fairy tales. Because of course, it is always dangerous to go into the woods. And that’s certainly not where you’re going to go looking for home! Unless you’re a cuckoo, overtaking a home that isn’t your own at all. The wood paneling in the cabin is like the twigs of a nest. And she sees more humanity in that wood than she does in the other people in the house. Her job in the adult services industry, performing phone sex, ties into her pattern for seeking intimacy in every way except face-to-face. She builds her relationships though voice, until she finds the faces in the wood.


DB: I found so many of the psychological aspects of the story to be fascinating. From the father who she would never see for his face to faces and voices from the wood panels. What is the appeal to you as a writer in presenting a tension between the psychological or supernatural in a story?

SR: I’ve always felt like the supernatural and the psychological are kind of the same thing. I like to toy with both sides of that coin–whether the paranormal is a delusion, or if it’s a real thing that presents itself only to an attuned consciousness. I like to write things where both stay equally possible, however you want to read it. I like that tension so much, I think, because I don’t know which side of the argument I fall on, myself. I can’t pick a side, so I write both.


DB: What is the appeal of the tension between a psychological explanation or a supernatural explanation for you as a reader? Does this differ from what you get from it as a writer? How did you intend or if you do not want to give that away, how might one interpret what is going on in the story, real or in Cass’s mind?

SR: I like to read those sorts of stories as much as I like to write them, yes! I think one of my favorite examples is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. Really, any exorcism story relies on that tension. I like being able to read the story in two ways, in parallel. It’s like getting two stories for one! And then finding the places where, somehow, impossibly, those parallels cross–it’s like a fun puzzle game, too. The ambiguity and lack of sure answer never bothers me. And there’s no clear answer in my story, either. I don’t even know, myself. It’s definitely both. 🙂


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Here are Sarah’s Questions and my answers about “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning


SR: You describe setting beautifully. Is this a place that is special to you? Have you traveled there often? What inspired you to set “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning” there?


DB: Thank you. Working with setting is an important part of my creative process. Often it is the inspiration or what I decide on first. The settings here are generalized version of a small town on the East End of Long Island, a remote part of Costa Rica, and a sea-side town in California. While they are all based on real places I have visited they were chosen for their sea-side aspect and not for any special personal connection. In the pre-writing, decision making stage of my process I wanted places that were sea-side that would be a natural place for fisherman to be and a place where one could encounter sharks.

When I was asked to contribute to the anthology, I had the short story “Because Their Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee on my mind. It is one of my favorite short stories. It features a repentant hunter and I was thinking about writing a story inspired by it. I wound up making many departures from this original inspiration and while the two stories are vastly different and occupy different places Tanith’s story or what it means to me was certainly an inspiration.


SR: In the story, the sea is both life and death—a comfort and a trauma. We see it start to heal your character just as it tears another down. Have you ever lost anything to the sea? Gained anything from it?


DB: What an excellent, thoughtful question, thank you. I had not thought of the story in that way and I appreciate the opportunity to think about it through that lens.


I do love the ocean. I have both a sense of awe from its vastness and beauty and a real sense of fear from its power and elemental nature that is much greater than and uncaring or even unknowing of the humans who venture in it. Maybe this is why I tend to write about it or set stories in or near it so much.


Once I did see a shark brutalized as was done in the story. I’m not sure if I “lost” something tangible to the sea but upon reflection I think that was one of the first times I witnessed human cruelty and human domination over an animal up close and personal. The emotional realization that this happens was a loss of at least some part of youthful optimism and sense of invulnerability.


As far as gaining something, I think back to a moment when I was scuba diving at the Palankar Reef. The reef is near by a continental shelf where one can see light reaching the end of its journey from the sun and is no longer able to travel further into an unfathomable blackness. The time I spent floating there, is something that stays with me. Looking back I realized it changed me somehow. It imbued me with some sort of perspective though I am unable to pinpoint exactly what. It is something I’ve noticed I come back to one way or another in my writing. I’ve written a short story titled “Palankar” which will be appearing in my third short story collection UNDERWORLD DREAMS which is coming in 2020 from Lethe Press.


The notion of finding something, like something lost or a message in a bottle is very appealing to think about and good fodder for a story idea.


SR: How much research did you have to do about fishing and sharks for this piece?


DB: Not much. I drew upon my own experiences so I didn’t have to do any additional research. The majority of the work on the story was the process of visualizing everything and getting it onto the page in a dramatic structure. I’m not a fisherman and rarely, if ever fish. I do love sharks and am fascinated by them, so I feel like I am always researching sharks.


SR: How does this story tie into the theme for the Pareidolia anthology? What about that theme inspired you to write this piece?


DB: Pareidolia is defined as the tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. The first image that came into my mind when creating this story was the part where the main character sees the sister’s face and sees it as a “shark” face. Is he seeing things? Seeing Things was a working title of the book. Or is he observing something factual and real? I intentionally drafted the story to be one where the “explanation” for what was happening could be either psychology or supernatural, without definitively landing on one way or the other. So in addition to that instance of pareidolia in the story I wanted the entire story to operate as a kind of pareidolia where the reader is not certain if what they are observing is a psychological or supernatural phenomenon. It is a bit out of bounds but hopefully one close enough to be satisfying as part of the project.


SR: Do you often experience Pareidolia? What are a few recent instances for you?


DB: The only time I can recall experiencing the phenomenon is with wood paneling much like you describe in your short story “Into the Wood.” There is something about the patterns and grain in natural wood that my eye forms into faces.


In my short story “The Green Man of Punta Cabre” in my first short story collection THE NIGHT MARCHERS AND OTHER STRANGE TALES from Cemetery Dance Publication a character sees the face of Jesus in a stalk of corn. I did not know that there was a name for this kind of phenomena when I was writing that story. In that story the phenomena is revealed to be supernatural very early on in the tale unlike “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning.”


Thank you, Sarah, for your questions and answers. It was great conversing with you about the stories!


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Sarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in GamutBlack Static, and other places, and in various anthologies including  The Best Horror of the Year vol 10. Her novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is now out from Trepidatio Publishing, and her debut collection Out of Water released in late 2019. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pantheon Magazine and of their associated anthologies, including Gorgon: Stories of Emergence. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits.


Daniel Braum is the author of the short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions) and the Dim Shores Press Chapbook Yeti, Tiger, Dragon. His third collection Underworld Dreams is forthcoming from Lethe Press in 2020. The Serpent’s Shadow, his first novel, was released from Cemetery Dance eBooks in 2019. He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology from Lethe Press and the host of the Night Time Logic series in New York City.


Pareidolia is available direct from the publisher Black Shuck Books and from your favorite booksellers.

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