Friday, June 28, 2019

Quoth the Raven Interview

Note: Tiffany Michelle Brown, who's also a contributor to Quoth the Raven, a contemporary reimagining of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Lyn Worthen, conducted this interview with me a while back. It had a lot of fun questions and brought back memories of my dad, so I thought I'd share it here.   

The Quoth the Raven anthology by Camden Park Press celebrates the eerie and influential legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. What is it about Edgar Allan Poe’s work that speaks to you (perhaps from the grave)? 

I think Poe strikes me on two levels. The full scope of his work conveys a mood. It captures the essence of shadow, the dark, grim recesses of the world and the psyche. I was telling someone else that when I was very young, four or five, my dad read me “The Raven.” I didn’t fully understand it, but I picked up enough to be terrified by the pervasive presence plaguing the narrator. That dark tone reverberates through all of Poe’s work in a remarkable way. I guess that’s the visceral impact. Knowing of Poe’s life and challenges, I think, strikes the rational mind. It’s fascinating to see the torments and trials filtered through his artist’s thinking. It’s a glimpse of literary alchemy, and it generates appreciation and sympathy at the same time. What a brilliant and tormented artist.

Pick three adjectives to describe the story/poem you wrote for the Quoth the Raven anthology.

Human. Dark. Infinite. I know those aren’t all labeled adjectives in the dictionary, but if you use them like this, they modify: A human story. A dark story. An infinite story.

Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your story/poem is about. What do you tell him? 

It’s the story of a man who think’s he’s average and ordinary, but actions are swirling around him that will drive him to extraordinary measures using the tools he has at hand, the tools of which he's a master. Choices reveal an almost calm and unexpected cunning and suggest he may be tapping into the very darkest part of his own soul and some collective soul as well. Whew, how’s that? I think that’s something a man all in black in an elevator might relate to.

Okay, I’m continuing with this scenario thing. It’s 1849, and you’re at a gathering of literature lovers, a salon, if you will. Across the room, you spy Edgar Allan Poe, and you simply must go over to him to compliment his work. What is the story or poem of his that you laud to excess? And why? 

I have a second to think, right? I’d be very prone to babble, because I can imagine the look I’d get back from Poe as I touch his shoulder and interrupt his thoughts. I think I’d babble also because there are so many stories and poems that come to mind and possibly I might say something goofy like: Do you know your name is also the first three letters of poem? Oh, you’ve heard that? With a moment to compose myself, I’d settle on mentioning “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is the antecedent for my Quoth the Raven story “A Cooler of Craft Brew.” I encountered it first in high school, and it’s the first Poe story I approached on that visceral and intellectal level at once, and having approached it again, I see the depth of its horror even more in its concise length and the brilliance of its execution as well. There are elegant, grim choices that really set its hook deep, perhaps more so a few seconds after the last words are read.

As a writer, what do you think are the most important elements of dark fiction?

Stephen King writes of what he calls “The Terror” in Danse Macabre, kind of the ultimate level of horror fiction and impact. We feel a breath, turn but there’s nothing there, as he puts it. I think that level really involves suggestion and providing a reader’s imagination just enough to work with. It’s about dropping a hint that invites visualization and contemplation. H.P. Lovecraft was an afficianado of Poe. I think he saw and distilled some of that dark essence from Poe’s work. Shocks are good. Shocks are punctuation points that throw us off balance, but ultimately, forcing the mind and imagination to work and keep working are where dark fiction is at its most powerful.

Ray Bradbury does it in “The October Game.” He doesn’t focus directly on gore. He provides building blocks so that we have an impression of something happening in the dark, then literally he leaves us to look on the horrible scene in the light with the story’s very last line. In a bit of rare restraint, because it stems from Bradbury’s pen, I suppose, the EC Comics adaptation of that story from the fifties gets it right. We’re left with a final panel of shocked faces instead of a typical EC final panel, and that gives us something we can’t escape by closing our eyes. We know what they’re seeing. We’re imagining it. It’s like Bradbury’s channeled the old Zen maneuver: “Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant.”

As a reader, why are you attracted to dark fiction? Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?

I think it’s because my father scarred me by reading me Edgar Alan Poe when I was four. But seriously folks, Kafka said we should read stories that wound and stab us and that if the story doesn’t break through the ice within us or deliver a blow to the head that wakes us up, why are we bothering? Many meditations about conflict and catharsis have been written as well. Deep down, I think there’s a logic to dark fiction and that resonates and satisfies us. It kind of offers a capsule of a bigger, messy, complicated world, a snapshot of a dark moment we can contemplate and from which we stand to glean some understanding.

What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)? What was it about that particular story that just got to you?

Wow, I guess, top of my head, it’s “The Raven” that I mentioned earlier. It put me in that lonely, isolated room with the narrator, and in that isolation and darkness when the tapping begins so does the terror. It’s so pure and basic, and it’s with me years and years and years later.

Who are some of your literary inspirations?

Poe really is an early one. I guess, at least when I was a young person, he was a staple for parents and educators. We had a collection from Whitman, the publisher that did all the TV tie-ins when I was a kid and offered Trixie Belden and Tarzan and the like. Edgar Rice Burroughs thrilled me when I was a kid, the books and comic book adaptations that my father also read to me. This could be a long list, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Bloch. Later Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Lovecraft and Stephen King come a little later still. Ray Bradbury, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn, the Weird Tales writers who were collected in horror paperbacks when I was in junior high. Like everyone who puts pen to paper, I think there are countless influences.

I’ve always loved the dedication page to the novel Logan’s Run that touches on everything from The Green Hornet to Dangerous Dan McGrew. So, that.

What are you currently working on right now?

I’ve been working on a New Orleans noir novel for a while. It’s called Fool’s Run. I’ve finished a draft, done the heavy lifting, so I’m letting it sit a bit. I think if you do that, then you can delve back into a work and see if it really says what you thought you were saying. I picked up the notion of something growing cold to the author’s eye from an online conversation with thriller author Joseph Finder, so I should acknowledge that. I like to say at the moment I’m on a bit of a vacation as well, writing short stories such as “A Cooler of Craft Brew.” Short fiction’s fun and statisfying. I get back to short stories whenever I can.

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