(Artwork by Paul Carrick.)
Welcome to the first interview with one of the authors that contributed to the critically acclaimed Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities. About once a week from now on you will be able to look into the twisted minds of these literary anomalies (and that is a badge of honor, in case you were wondering). The focal point is, naturally, Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities but, not surprisingly, the interviews more often than not veer into other areas related to writing, reading and the weird tales field in general.
Q = question asked by yours truly, Henrik Sandbeck Harksen; A = answer by Thomas Strømsholt:
Q: You have a story in Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities (hplmythos.com Vol. 2), “Architect Eyes.” Without giving away spoilers what can the reader expect of this tale?
A: A tale of nightmares, weird architecture, and the splendour of nothing as seen through the eyes of an acolyte of a blind idiot god.
Q: What inspired this particular story?
A: When I saw the call for submissions for Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities, I was reading about architecture – the weird Carceri of Piranesi, the sombre visions of Boulée, the demented designs and theories associated with Deconstructivism – and the title immediately gave me the idea for the story. Another source of inspiration was David Bowie’s eminent song, “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” from which the title of my story is derived.
Q: Speaking of inspiration: This story is, obviously, Lovecraftian and/or Cthulhu Mythos inspired, or it would not be included in this collection. What is it about the writings of H. P. Lovecraft you like and that inspires you? And do you find Lovecraftian stories and more overtly Cthulhu Mythos stories equally interesting and inspiring?
A: At the most basic level, I am attracted to that thrilling suggestion of unknown dimensions which form a major theme of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction. A concurrent and equally fascinating theme is that of reason versus unreason. As the latter often shatters the rational or Hegelian world-view of the protagonist, the stories contain potentially subversive elements which – as far as I know – is wholly unintended by the author. Lovecraft’s best stories ring true and honest. His delirious and yet precise prose convincingly conveys such feelings as awe, estrangement and horror, and his close attention to atmosphere, so important to the weird tale, is superb. Some of his tales, though, are so devoid of atmosphere and subtlety that they’re simply dull and slightly silly. A hint of tentacles and a glimpse of pinkish things are fine, but detailed anatomies are not. I much prefer such tales as “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Cool Air” and “The Color Out of Space” to those of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Q: While it may not always be evident in my own writings or every story I accept for publication, the philosophical views held by Lovecraft – cosmic indifferentism and the existential core of life’s meaninglessness, for example – is of special interest to me. Much of this is clearly present in his letters. Does his thinking and letter writing have any influence on you?
A: The theme of “Architect Eyes” may be said to be the utter meaninglessness of existence, but in general I do not think that Lovecraft’s metaphysics – what little I know of it – has had much influence on my writing. His essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” has been a great influence. When I first came upon a volume of H. P. Lovecraft’s tales – a chance discovery at some seedy second-hand bookstore – I had read very little horror literature. Notable exceptions were Poe and W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” but the rest had been so tedious and silly that I more or less avoided anything in that category. In many ways that cheap paperback volume proved to be a significant discovery. For it led me to the essay on supernatural horror which in turn led me to the classics of Gothic fiction and a whole range of authors that I had never heard about, Maupassant and Arthur Machen in particular.
Q: What differentiates your work from HPL’s?
A: To the extent that one can generalize from the few and disparate tales I have penned, I suppose there are all sorts of differences, one being the approach to the unknown or the numinous experience. Is our oldest fear, as Lovecraft wrote, really the fear of the unknown? Certainly, the confrontation with the unknown can inspire fear, even terror, but also wonder and, perhaps, rapture …
Q: What else inspires you? What other authors – and anything else? (E.g. movies, comics, artwork?) Not to mention: Why are you inspired by this?
A: Some of my best ideas are born while I sleep. Some of my poorest ideas are inhabitants of dreams too, or they turn out to be so once I try to transmute them into something resembling literature. Art is inspiring in a whole other way. All great works of art can make the world vibrate with wonder, perhaps even open one’s perceptions to new aspects of that weird concept we call reality. Art is a highly addictive drug.
Q: Some people (writers, readers and critics alike) claim that a writer needs to find and have “a voice” of his/her own. Do you agree with this?
A: A distinctive voice or style in writing is undoubtedly important. It’s that which sets the individual author apart from the rest of the tribe. The frenetic ecstasy of Dostoyevsky, the precise prose of M. R. James, the cynicism of Shirley Jackson, the graceful style of Thomas Ligotti … one is never in doubt of the authorship. Theirs are honest voices, and honesty, as Dr Johnson said, is the one true standard of originality.
Q: Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities is an attempt to collect Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos inspired stories that steer in a more urban direction than what we typically see in the sub-genre. How will you personally define “urban Cthulhu” and “urban horror”?
A: A rural setting has many advantages in that the further away we get from the city lights and noise – the greatest noise of all being consensus – the closer we get to the twilight zones of consciousness. But of course we can stumble upon – or seek out – such places in cities too. It seems to me that much urban horror or weird fiction show a predilection for the decay that we may find on the fringes of cities. Urban decay may be seen as both a metaphor for our contemporary culture but also as the natural choice of setting due to the liminal nature and uncanny atmosphere of such places thus resembling the horror or wonder that nature evokes.
Q: The 1970s and 1980s saw a boom in horror publications – Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean R. Koontz being the most commercially prominent authors here – but then it all seemed to wane somewhat. How do you see the field, as a whole, today?
A: That an author like King has enjoyed such great commercial success might be seen as indicative of a decline in literature and taste if not for the fact that there has always been published more rubbish than diamonds. If such contemporary authors as Mark Valentine, Quentin S. Crisp and Reggie Oliver are part of the “field,” it certainly looks as glorious as dawn. So far their fiction has – almost exclusively, I think – been published by small presses, a circumstance which surely says something significant about the publishing industry.
Q: For decades the Cthulhu Mythos sub-genre seemed to be mainly about writing pastiches, and they were (let’s be honest here) generally of a questionable quality. Has this, in your opinion, changed in recent years?
A: The only two authors that I know of who have been inspired by Lovecraft’s mythology are Ligotti and Caitlín R. Kiernan, and both write in a style uniquely their own.
Q: Do you have any work routine? Do you work day or night, for example? Lay out the plot line first, write whatever inspiration takes you, listen to a certain kind of music?
A: I get up early and pick up where I left off the day before. I never begin a new story without knowing exactly how it will end and how to get there. Along the way I correct errors and rewrite poor passages until I have finished the first draft. Then I rewrite the whole thing – or throw it away. Listening to music while I work – especially good music – would distract me. I prefer working in quietude. Writing “Architect Eyes”, though, I listened repeatedly to Outside, one of Bowie’s best albums. I’m still waiting for the follow up of the adventures of Nathan Adler …
Q: When did you find out you wanted to be a writer – and why weird fiction and horror?
A: By analogy, I began writing prose the same way as you begin smoking: you try one cigarette, just one, and before you know it you have a monkey on your back. Why is this particular monkey of mine a creature of nightmare? I suppose it has something to do with my frequent nightmares, bouts of melancholy, certain phobias and other tedious things … But it’s not all dark and morbid.
Q: Why short stories? After all, the novel seems to be the most commercially feasible product.
A: So far the short story has been the perfect format for the stories that I have desired to write.
Q: I am sure many readers would like to hear more of what else you have written and where they can find your work. Care to tell us a little about that?
A: Besides “Architect Eyes” there really is not much so speak about unless one is proficient in that exotic language know as Danish. If that is the case, there is a collection of short stories published by none other than H. Harksen Productions. (Editor’s Note: De underjordiske.)
Q: What can we expect from you in the future? Any specific stories or projects soon to be published? Perhaps something you’re working on right now that you want to hint at? 😉
A: There is a small collection of stories to appear soon from Ex Occidente Press. It is called Oriflammes and contains six stories of the strange, the wondrous and the uncanny.
Q: Do you have any advice for upcoming writers who want to pen weird stories?
A: No. I am still learning how to write, so I should really be the one taking advice.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Any last words of wisdom, warning or just plain weird you want to say?
A: Exodus, chapter twenty-five, verse eight – if anyone wondered about the significance of “zevul.”
(Editor’s End Note: Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities can also be purchased from Amazon.com and other online retailers.)