The Hardest Working Man in Weird Fiction: A Jeff VanderMeer Interview

Jeff VanderMeer collage Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks on December 19, 2008. In 2018, Paramount pictures will release Annihilation, a film based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource. At the time of this interview, Ann was the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into Gothic fantasy and science fiction with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch. Together, Ann and Jeff have edited a number of anthologies, most recently, the pirate-themed Fast Ships, Black Sails, in which, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “Saintly pirates, loony pirates, pirate cooks and talking animal-buccaneers slash and swagger through the Caribbean, the Internet, the perpetually frozen Atlantic and the seas of distant planets in this collection of 18 original stories.”

Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Jeff VanderMeer has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Z. Danielewski, Edgar Allen Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov. His novels are sublime mixtures of genre, meta-, and literary fiction, books within stories within other books where the characters provide commentary via footnotes, illustrations, and other appendixes. If that sounds dry, it’s because it doesn’t convey the absurdist humor, nightmarish fear, and sweeping epic drama of VanderMeer’s secret history of the city of Ambergris. Tragic poets and artists populate dark cafes, naked holy men and furtive mushroom people menace hapless wanderers in alleys and alcoves, and once a year, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid plunges the city into decadent mayhem.It was hard to catch Jeff when he had time to answer questions. He pours his energy into writing with a perfectionist’s drive.

Bill Ectric: Congratulations on finishing your latest novel, Finch. Is this another Ambergris novel?

Jeff VanderMeer: Finch is the third in the Ambergris Cycle, set 100 years after Shriek. It features a detective.

Bill: I understand you’ve been hunkered down, hard at work on Finch for quite a long time. Are you in a state of decompression?

Jeff: I am in a state of severe imaginative withdrawal in the sense that I need to recharge before the next novel.

Bill: When did you first read Nabokov’s Pale Fire and what effect did it have on you?

Jeff: I can’t remember when I read it but it has had a profound effect. It showed me that using an experimental structure didn’t mean you couldn’t also achieve an emotional response in the reader. I think Nabokov’s formal brilliance blinds some critics to the emotional resonance in his work.

Bill: Are any of the artists, writers, and musicians in Ambergris based real people or real groups of people, for example, the Lake Poets, the Beats, or the Romantics?

Jeff: A lot of them are loosely based on the Decadents. Some are based on Chagall and Arcimboldo. The rest are based on contemporaries and thus I cannot divulge who…

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer   Vertemnus by Arcimboldo

Bill: Is there a reason you do some rewrites in longhand? Doesn’t your hand get tired?

Jeff: No, my hand doesn’t get tired any more than my wrists do typing on a computer. Longhand allows me to get into the fictive dream more easily. I also will break a scene back down into longhand after it’s been typed up if I need to radically revise it. I tell writing students who only have laptops that they’re missing out. You’re ignoring a potent tool in seeing your fiction in a new light. A lot of beginners are doing light edits, not revision, and they also allow the computer, through IM and other things, to fracture their attention while writing.

Bill: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan refused to grow up and H. P. Lovecraft feared that reaching adulthood meant “growing too old for pleasure.” Is it important for a writer of weird fantasy to stay in touch with childhood feelings and intuition? How does one balance that with the responsibilities of real life?

Jeff: Every writer needs to see the world fresh. Lovecraft, for all of his brilliance, was trapped in an adolescence fearful of women and foreigners and unable to live a fulfilling normal life. That’s definitely not necessary.

Bill: We hear about indie bands having their CD “picked up” by a major label. Do major publishers ever “pick up” independent and/or self-published books?

Jeff: Sure. I’ve had the majority of my books picked up by majors after being out first from indies. That’s how I finally got on people’s radar.

Bill: Fantasy author Ekaterina Sedia suggested I ask what your favorite dark beer is.

Jeff: Heh. It is Delirium Nocturnum followed closely by Arrogant Bastard.

Bill: How did it come about that you wrote a Predator novel?

Jeff: I think you write from love, mental illness, money…or some combination of the three. Predator I wrote for fun (love) and money. Brian Evenson got me an audience with Dark Horse and they liked my pitch.The challenge I set myself was to write the Predator movie I would want to see. I actually think both Predator movies are good action movies. So it is meant to be fun and exciting … with a few signature VanderMeerisms as part of that.

Predator by Jeff VanderMeer book cover   Finch by Jeff VanderMeer book cover

 

The First Horror Anthology?

 WeirdTalesSeance (2)

On his web site 1,000 Misspent Hours and Counting, Scott Ashlin begins his review of the 1919 silent film Weird Tales (also known as Eerie Tales) with, “Rarely does one have to wait long after finding what seems to be the first of something before an even earlier example comes to light, but that said, I have a hard time imagining that there are too many horror anthology movies out there predating Weird Tales. At the very least, an anthology requires something close to a modern feature-length running time, and movies much longer than an hour were still a fairly recent innovation in 1919. In any event, Weird Tales pushes back the temporal horizons of more than just the portmanteau fright film, for it features Conrad Veidt in the sort of role that would dominate his historical public image, yet it came out some months before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It also stands as an early example of an approach to casting that would recur among anthologies at least until the days of Trilogy of Terror— not only Veidt, but his two costars as well appear in all five tales, plus the interstitial framing sequences.”

     Read entire article

And here’s the movie:

Haining Waning?

                

Douglas A. Anderson maintains that this Werewolf
anthology (left) contains no story by Guy Endore (right)

Yet another bogus claim by anthologist Peter Haining, as investigated by Douglas A. Anderson on Wormwoodiana.

Anderson says, “I’ve written elsewhere of a few other instances of his outrageous frauds (for one, where he lifted one author’s story from an early Weird Tales and claimed it was by Dorothy Macardle and from an Irish magazine) . . . Now I’ve happened upon yet another example of Haining’s premeditated deceit. I’ve recently been looking closely into the writings of Guy Endore (1900-1970), author of The Werewolf of Paris (1933).

Weird Fiction is Thriving on the Vine

Great good news! Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have launched a very promising online journal dedicated to the examination and enjoyment of outré literature, called Weird Fiction Review. Not only does the first issue contain an interview with Neil Gaiman, I see on GalleyCat that “the journal will maintain a ‘symbiotic relationship’ with S.T. Joshi’s print journal, The Weird Fiction Review.” This is a very good thing, Joshi being one of the world’s foremost scholars of the uncanny genres.

I like the way Jeff and Ann refer to their project as “a non-denominational approach that appre­ciates Love­craft but also Kafka, Angela Carter and Clark Ash­ton Smith, Shirley Jack­son and Fritz Leiber — along with the next gen­er­a­tion of weird writ­ers and inter­na­tional weird.” That quote is also from GalleyCat, and here’s a link to the entire article.

But Ann and Jeff VanderMeer didn’t stop there. They have a new book out. You know those old, weird/horror/sci-fi anthologies I like to talk about in my Bill’s Bookshelf series? Most of those books are from the 1960s or 70s, but here’s a brand new collection that carries on the tradition and brings it into the 21st Century. It’s called The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories. This ambitious labor of love  boasts over one hundred years of weird fiction collected in a single volume, representing  more than 20 nationalities, with seven new translations. Check out the table of contents.

Apparently, when Weird Tales magazine decided to replace Ann VanderMeer as editor, the magazine’s loss was our gain. Ann & Jeff’s book-life is flourishing like the verdant foliage of Ambergris.

The Devil’s Generation: Bill’s Bookshelf No. 2

For the second installment of Bill’s Bookshelf, I’ve chosen another anthology, The Devil’s Generation (1973, Lancer Books, Inc.), edited by Vic Ghidalia. Each story involves kids, from an unborn baby to teenage punks and everything in between, but the book contains few, if any, actual stories about the devil. Satan was having a heyday in popular culture during the late 60s and early 70s, so the title was probably a way to cash in on that.

Hollywood was going through a phase in which they thought Frankenstein and Dracula were no longer scary, but that audiences could still be freaked out by Satanic themes. When Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, most of us knew Roman Polanski directed it, but the movie studio play down the fact that William Castle produced it, due to Castle’s past association with cheap, gimmicky films like The Tingler (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960). I had just seen The Exorcist when I bought The Devil’s Generation, and I assumed Lancer Books was also cashing in on that blockbuster. But maybe not. The copyright date of Devil’s Generation is 1973. The Exorcist was released in December 1973. Maybe there was inside information, maybe not. Too close to call.

 By far, the best story in this collection is Call Him Demon, by Henry Kuttner, followed by The Other Wing, by Algernon Blackwood. I’ll save my commentary on those two tales until the end.

 The book features a number of authors who had become celebrities by 1973, but their stories here seem like knock-offs. For example, in 1971, Robert Silverberg won the Nebula Award for his novel, A Time of Change. His story in The Devil’s Generation anthology, Hole In the Air, first appeared in the January 1956 issue of Amazing and is no more than a variation on To Serve Man by Damon Knight, which first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction and became a well-known Twilight Zone episode in 1962.

The Richard Matheson also wrote a famous Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (the one about the Gremlin on the airplane wing with William Shatner). The Matheson selection in The Devil’s Generation is called Mother By Protest. It shares a few similarities with Rosemary’s Baby, but not as scary, and the pregnant woman discovers that she is  carrying the baby of a space alien instead of Satan’s child.

There isn’t much to say about Ray Bradbury’s story, Black Ferris, except for ‘How did it serve the story’s plot to have one of the kids sneak out of his house naked? Did the editor order up a carnival, a skeleton, and some nudity?’

Robert Bloch’s tale, Floral Arrangement, is about a mother and son who live in a house overlooking a cemetery. It first appeared in Weird Tales, eleven years before his more famous story about a mother and son living among taxidermied birds in the Bates Motel.

In The Place In the Woods, August Derleth attempts to do what M. R. James did much better in An Episode of Cathedral History; that is, use a mythological creature as the basis for a supernatural tale.  

Day of Truce, by Clifford D. Simak, begins promisingly and really held my attention with a build-up of suspense, but at the end, it fizzled out and didn’t go anywhere. It ended up as just one more meditation on man’s penchant for war.

I saved the best for last. Henry Kuttner’s Call Him Demon struck a chord in me as the most original and enjoyable of all the stories, allowing for suspension of disbelief and total immersion into the secret world of kids. These kids are aware that one of the adults in the house is not really what he seems, and his presence is somehow connected to a horrible meat-eating monster in another dimension, which can only be accessed through the dark, dusky attic.

About Henry Kuttner, Wikipedia tells us:

Marion Zimmer Bradley is among many authors who have cited Kuttner as an influence. Her novel The Bloody Sun is dedicated to him. Roger Zelazny has talked about the influence of The Dark World on his Amber series.

Kuttner’s friend Richard Matheson dedicated his 1954 novel I Am Legend to Kuttner, with thanks for his help and encouragement. Ray Bradbury likewise dedicated Dark Carnival, his first book, to him, calling him one of his hardest-working and most patient teachers; Bradbury has said that Kuttner actually wrote the last 300 words of Bradbury’s first horror story, “The Candle” (Weird Tales, November 1942). Bradbury has referred to Kuttner as a neglected master and a “pomegranate writer: popping with seeds — full of ideas”.[3]

William S. Burroughs‘s novel The Ticket That Exploded contains direct quotes from Kuttner regarding the “Happy Cloak” parasitic pleasure monster from the Venusian seas.

Finally, Algernon Blackwood’s The Other Wing is not scary, but it is such a nicely crafted, classic ghost story that I must give it a thumbs up.

Notes on My Novel

Tamper strives to balance mainstream storytelling with some of the more modern conventions, sometimes called meta-fiction, without alienating fans of either style. This gives fans of both meta-fiction and mainstream fiction something to talk about. To borrow a phrase from Cory Doctorow, it “brings more people into the tent.”

 In his book, The Modern Weird Tale, S. T. Joshi describes “alternatives to supernaturalism” and cites Thomas Tryon’s 1973 novel Harvest Home, in which rural New England villagers practice pagan fertility rituals. In this grisly tale, as Joshi points out, when a skeletal apparition is revealed to be a disfigured man, it does not diminish the atmosphere of horror.  This is the same dynamic that gave me goose bumps as a child when I read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the second or third time, even though I knew the morning light would find a shattered pumpkin on the riverbank near Ichabod Crane’s hat.  On a more ambiguous note, Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has generated endless speculation because it leaves the reader to decide if the ghosts were real or imagined, and for that matter, if the ghosts were delusional products of the power of suggestion, does that make them any less supernatural?        

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. To again quote from S. T. Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale, this time referring to Thomas Ligotti,  “One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales.”

Finally, one of the later chapters melts into stream-of-consciousness prose, albeit, more accessible than the dense work of James Joyce and William Burroughs. For people who are curious, but not used to, stream-of-consciousness, this chapter is a comfortable place to explore and still find your way out. It should also please the more serious fans of weird literature.

Fiction for Readers Who Enjoy the Mechanics of Literature

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. 

Chapter 5 of  The Modern Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi includes this passage on writer Thomas Ligotti

“One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales. In ‘The Frolic,’ a psychiatrist’s report of a madman’s visions are uncannily like Ligotti’s own aesthetic quest for the unreal:

There’s actually quite a poetic geography to his interior dreamland as he describes it. He talked about a place that sounded like the back alleys of some cosmic slum, an inner-dimensional dead end… Less fathomable are his memories of a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks of some kind that won’t remain still, a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way…”