Illustration by Tom Kristensen
We now return to the interviews with the cool authors contributing to Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities (hplmythos.com Vol. 2). This time it is T. E. Grau, another one of the bright, new stars in the Lovecraftian sky today. One of the most versatile there is.
Ted kindly replied to my probing questions, not surprisingly with witty, thoughtful and enlightening answers.
Q: You have a story in Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities (hplmythos.com Vol. 2), “The Screamer.” Without giving away spoilers what can the reader expect of this tale?
A: Hopefully a healthy slice of white collar, cubicle horror mixed with cosmic Weirdness set in an urban environment that varies from sidewalk gritty to office building antiseptic. Some have said that if you take out the “Lovecraftian” elements, the story could stand alone as a Los Angeles Noir tale. While that wasn’t my original intention, I’m honored by the comparison, as I’m a big fan of Noir, especially that set in my adopted city.
What inspired this particular story?
A: This story comes straight from my 9 to 5. Or, more accurately, my 10:30 to 8, as my office hours are insane. The Screamer is an actual “thing,” in that I heard this man (I’m certain that it was a male) yelp, howl, and scream every single day at around the same time (between noon and 12:30 pm) for weeks and months on end a few years back. While the skyscrapers of Century City (aka “The Lawyer Capital of LA”) distort the direction of sound, I’m positive that it came from my back left as I sat at my desk, which would put The Screamer somewhere between Beverly Hills High School and the far southwestern end of this self contained mini-city, in the shadow of the old Herbalife building on the corner of Little Santa Monica. I always thought this was a very strange and unique occurrence, and wanted to write a story about it – a Lovecraftian one, at that, as it involved a mysterious sort of yelping insanity – but I could never find a suitable ending that wasn’t some ’Craftian cliché. Finally, after talking about it with my wife Ives, she suggested an ending that I had never considered and it all clicked into place. So, I always credit her with helping me find The Screamer, and dedicate the tale to her.
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: I probably sound like a religion-bashing broken record at this point, but I truly credit my Evangelical Christian upbringing with fostering a passion for the Cosmicism created – or more rightly, expanded – by the works of Lovecraft and his peers who came before and after him. Once I broke free of the oppressive terror of eternal damnation, I found that a reality founded on the principles of incalculably old alien beings – “gods” for lack of a better term – that have existed long before our reality and our sense of God were even born very enticing, and liberating in some sense. That, and I just love really big fucking monsters (not monsters who fuck, but just fucking big monsters) that treat planets like marbles and have no interest in the miniscule, unimportant existence of humanity. The massive scale and antiquity of Lovecraft’s Mythos grabbed my sense of wonder and hasn’t let go since. I will and am increasingly writing stories not set in the Lovecraftian milieu, but the old Gent will always call me back to Arkham, as I can’t ever foresee a day that Cosmic Horror doesn’t appeal to me as a reader and writer. It’s just too much bloody fun to work in that limitless reality.
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: As touched upon above, the cosmic indifference of his creatures is certainly fascinating and inspiring in a creative sense, as it flies in the face of traditional Horror where humanity has special powers and domination over supernatural forces. But, I find myself having very little in common with Lovecraft’s personal philosophies and views on the world, especially as they concern race, integration and that disgusting term “miscegenation.”
As such, I don’t celebrate the man, as I think we wouldn’t get on too well. But I do celebrate his creations, which I must keep separate from their founder, lest I’d struggle to continue working under his wide and wondrous tent.
Q: What differentiates your work from HPL’s?
A: First and foremost, my lack of acute racism and general joyful embrace of divergent cultures and world travel. J After that, I think my writing differs in terms of geographical and life experience. I’ve been all over the States, North America, and dozens of countries in Europe, and although I spent my first decade in Pennsylvania, I came of age in Nebraska, on the High Plains, which gives one a little different terrestrial map in which to set stories, and where to find horror.
And, while my prose can purple it up with the best of them, I don’t feel as if my final draft verbiage is as dense as his (although some may disagree). I happen to enjoy a bit of baroque in the fiction I read, and in what I write, but modern palettes find it hard to digest, so I try to balance my love of the flowered pen with the sensibilities of my readers, and the desire to make the prose as strong and tight as possible, with only enough fat for flavor. Which often means toning myself down during re-writes, as what comes out naturally is just a shade less lavender than Lovecraft.
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? J
A: Damn, Henrik, you’re making me work for this one:-) [Henrik: But of course;-)]
I think on a very basic level fostered in my early youth, I’m inspired by FANTASY, be it Dark, Heroic, and (mostly) everything in between. Following on the heels of this is an awe of Cosmicism, born from my upbringing, where I was terrified and thrilled in equal measure by those Forces at work beyond all understanding and measurement. This is seasoned by more than a dollop of Gothic appreciation, and a fascination with all things in a state of decay. Old buildings, moldering books, weathered ruins… I just dig OLD STUFF, and Lovecraft obviously felt the same way, as he was an anachronist from way back. My refusal to purchase and iPhone and e-reader fall in line with HPL views on modern conveniences and obsessive gadget culture.
Movies that inspire me are those that are creative and raw. Stark and sometimes violent. There Will Be Blood, Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas, Planet of the Apes, etc. Fantasy and sci-fi films of my youth electrified my synapses, including The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, The Hobbit animated feature, and especially Time Bandits, which wound its way into many a youthful dream/nightmare. I watched a bit of Japanese sci-fi anime as a kid whenever I could find it on the local Philadelphia UHF station (as the art was so much better, and the action much cooler), including Star Blazers, and the “men in suits” Godzilla, Ultraman, Gamera, and other monster films. The Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scared the shit out of me as a kid, which was fun. That production value, that British-ness… Terrifying. Amazing.
In the realm of comic books, I always loved Batman, especially Frank Miller’s strain (as well as some of the darker late 80’s Batman graphic novels), because of his inner struggle between level-headed justice and a lust for violent revenge in a grim, almost apocalyptic Gotham. I also dug the X-Men, Wolverine, The Punisher, The Crow, The Tick, Groo the Wanderer, Vigil’s Faust. Ron Lim’s Silver Surfer stoked my inner Cosmicist (GALACTUS!), while Neil Gaiman’s Sandman grabbed a hold of me tight because of its fantasy, mythology and cosmic elements combined with traditional Judeo-Christian afterlife constructs. I also was pretty nutty about Savage Sword of Conan, as I love a brawny, bloody tale of sword and sorcery. Without knowing it, I have and always will be a devout believer in the Big Three of Weird Tales (HPL, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith), as all three scratch me where I itch in different but ultimately satisfying ways.
As for artwork, I’m absolutely in love with several Polish fantasy painters, including Wiesław Wałkuski, Jacek Yerka, and my favorite contemporary painter of all time, Zdzislaw Beksiński. Other artists that really inspire and resonnate with me include Kris Kuksi, Frank Frazetta, Arthur Rackham, Michael Hussar, H.R. Geiger, Boris Vellejo, Salvador Dali, Chiharu Shiota, and Arnaud de Vallois (who’s doing the cover of my joint collection). There are so many more who practice the dark arts of surrealism and fantasy, I just can’t recall their names the moment.
I write to music, which is usually something doomy (metal or ambiant), Baroque Classical, or movie scores. That or Iron Maiden. My internal soundtrack is a live Maiden show (with opening act The Sword).
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? (Why?/Why not?)
A: I do and I don’t.
I am generally noncommittal on this because I’ve been told that I personally have a distinctive voice in my prose. I’m encouraged by this, as I think readers will follow a certain writer based on a certain voice. But, I can also appreciate an authorial and/or writerly chameleon, as that is what I did when I was working exclusively as a screenwriter, especially for the punch-up and re-write gigs I booked. I prided myself on being able to adapt to any genre, style, and even potential market (some of which weren’t exactly Anglo nor even American). In addition, my wife Ives – an exceptional writer – has a knack for adapting and morphing her style to suit the story, setting, genre, time period, and other external factors of each story, from whimsical to hard scrabble Western. I’m impressed by such versatility, and therefore love a writer that can alters one’s voice to serve the needs of the story at hand. I do that to some degree, as a story like “In the Cave, She Sang” (published in The Aklonomicon) is quite different from, say, “The Screamer” or “Free Fireworks (published in Horror for the Holidays).
That said, I love a true stylist, and appreciate the reliability of texture only woven by a specific author. This is comforting, and allows me to seek out certain stories/novels depending on my mood. Sometimes I want clean and stark, and sometimes I want lush and baroque. This is why I enjoy HPL’s work so much, as he’s as dependable as a gaudy, Old World cuckoo clock.
Artwork by Paul Carrick
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: Obviously, with “urban” as a descriptor, the stories must be set in a non-rural setting. But moving deeper than that, I think “urban horror” and “urban Cthulhu” reflect a certain strain of despair and worn out nihilism that can only be born in an urban environment, birthed by the crush of middle brow humanity, the stacking of the impoverished, and the feeling of claustrophobia that often lives within canyons of cement, steel, and glass.
And, as most real-life horror comes from the heart of humanity, cities are a breeding ground for terror and violence, as a person just can’t seem to live too close to another without one day wanting to brain that individual and cook their organs.
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: I admittedly got into the game late, meaning that nearly a whole decade of the 21st century passed before I decided to wade into the prose pool, after wasting a decade feeding the ducks in Hollywood as a screenwriter. But, in the last few years since I’ve been active in the Horror game as a writer, essayist, editor, and blogger, I’ve seen a blossoming of speculative fiction, especially that rooted in Lovecraft and his fellow Pulp Weirdists, and their creative forefathers and mothers who carved the supernatural fiction genre out of myth, fairy tale, and oral tradition.
As I’m now stretching into my 4th decade on this beautiful blue marble, I wish I could comment on the rise and fall of Horror publication and scholarship, as I was certainly alive during this period, but I unfortunately cannot. I’ve read about the heyday of horror writing in the late 70s and 80s, but I missed out on all of that in real time. Back then, I was embroiled in month-long D&D sessions, painting lead figurines, and reading “fantasy adventure” (as we called it then) books well into junior high and early high school, as Heroic Fantasy was my first love. In college, I was a music journalist and humor columnist for several local magazines (a few of which I helped found) in Omaha, Nebraska and the wider Midwest. Fast forward a few years, and after putting my soul on consignment in Hollywood for just a bit over a decade (1998 to 2010), Ives encouraged me to give up the Ghost of Screenwriting Dreams Past and do what I really wanted to do, which was write Lovecraftian/Weird stories in prose, fostered by my repeated attempts to inject Lovecraft into every horror script I was approached to either co-write or punch up. Looking back at my sad sack accomplishments in screenwriting (which included many uncredited, peanut pay gigs), I followed her advice and haven’t looked back since.
So, VERY long story not very short, I don’t have much knowledge of the recent past rise of Horror, but I have seen an explosion of The Weird the last few years, including much Lovecraftian fiction and scholarly writing. I think it’s the perfect time to be alive in this genre, but as with every scene, there is some bad with the good. As Cthulhu gets pimped out even harder by every enterprising soul looking to cash in on something they don’t well understand, the uptick in Lovecraftian interest has produced some pretty lousy prose, and has reduced The Great Priest to a stuffed animal. Ah, progress, in all of its many splendors…
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? (If so, why do you think this is?)
A: I absolutely think it has changed, while also staying the same.
With the increase in new Lovecraftian fiction being written, based on demand and renewed interest and visibility of Lovecraft’s creations (film fests, plush Cthulhus, Internet memes, Del Toro’s brush with AtMoM, etc.) there are two divergent strands developing, and thickening in strength. The first is the grand tradition of pastiche or “fan fiction,” where writers mimic the style of Lovecraft, publishers slap a picture of Cthulhu on the book cover, and viola! LOVECRAFTIAN FICTION!
The second is a more nuanced approach, where writers who are influenced by Lovecraft concoct stories that channel that nebulous “Lovecraftian” vibe, which includes such themes as dread, apocalyptic doom, intercosmic horrors, etc.
I prefer the second grouping, although I’m certainly not immune to the charms of the first, as a reader and a writer. Pastiche can be good fun.
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 work at my “day job” office six days a week, so my creative writing schedule varies greatly, while also maintaining a semblance of routine, which is very important to me. After dropping off my daughter at school, I normally head to the gym, where I read the works of others, usually for possibly publication in Strange Aeons magazine (where I serve as Fiction Editor), or possibly a review and interview piece for publication at my blog The Cosmicomicon. This often entails stories/novels written by my contemporaries currently writing in the Horror, Lovecraftian, and Weird Fiction scene. But, to keep me grounded and provide variety, I sometimes throw in stories and works by more classic writers in the genre, like Ligotti, Blackwood, Machen, etc. In this way, I start my day off with reading, which I believe is as essential as writing to any scribe. It’s fuel, and one should never pour out more than he or she takes in. Input should be greater than output, as it’s my opinion that a writer should read more than they write.
As the morning bleeds into the afternoon, I try to find snatches of time to write at my day job, often with dubious results. As such, most of my writing occurs after 10:00 pm, with a bulk of it coming on Friday night, which usually starts in earnest after spending time with my wife and daughter, and then brewing up a stout pot of Irish Coffee. I wrote “Transmission,” my first published work of fiction, almost entirely on weekends, and during the very wee hours, fueled by very loud music and very strong cups. “The Screamer” was crafted in this way, as well. Ride the speedball jag of caffeine and Jameson and put out the pages, then edit the next day, as things sometimes get a bit TOO Weird about 6 a.m on Saturday morning after not sleeping for 24 hours.
Q: When did you find out you wanted to be a writer – and why weird fiction and horror?
A: When I was a wee lad, I wanted to be an Oceanographer, as Jaques Cousteau was my childhood idol. I marveled at the strange, alien things that lived under the sea, that seemed so at odds with the physical characteristics of us plodding land animals. It was a revelation of the strange and wondrous, and Cousteau served as an explorer – an emissary – of the weird inner space of our planet, and it thrilled me on a molecular level. But while I was tripping out about the deep sea, I was also in the throes of late 70’s fantasy role playing games (D&D, Gamma World, Boot Hill, etc. – all that good TSR shit), art (Dragon Magazine), and even back yard live action adventurism (LARP-ing before LARP-ing was cool, with actual wooden swords and shields and an end result that always meant much actual bloodshed), which consisted of bashing on my neighbors with wooden swords and flails (socks filled with wet sand) for spray painted gold hidden around my semi-rural neighborhood in southeastern Pennsylvania. This heady mix infected my soul in ways that I couldn’t shake even if I tried. I wanted to create worlds of fantasy, which naturally led to a passion for writing, as my drawing skills weren’t up to snuff, and if I wanted to conjure new realities, the written word was my passport.
A few years later, in my high school Honors English class, we were assigned to write a five-page story of original fiction, on whatever topic. I wrote a 28-page vignette that was basically the first chapter in a fantasy adventure novel. I never finished that novel, but I did get an A+++ from my teacher, who included a note that I should try to get my work published. That was my first encouragement to pursue writing. At that point, I knew what I needed to do, and after many zigs and nutty fucking zags, I am finally doing what I should have done in the first place – write prose fiction. It only took me 20+ years of publication in anything BUT prose fiction, but I finally arrived as the rumpled, frustrated thing on the doorstep of the looming, decrepit house that I had always been looking for, and found at long last. Luckily, the door was unlocked, and a kettle was on the stove as I walked in.
Q: Why short stories? After all, the novel seems to be the most commercially feasible product.
A: I currently write short stories because of H.P. Lovecraft. Period. He was my entre into this world, and once I found out that there was a market for stories of the short variety based on the Mythos of HPL (thanks almost entirely to Yog-Sothoth.com), I pulled up a chair to the table and got to work. Now I’m hooked, and have read so many amazing short story writers, including the more established masters like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, William Hope Hodgson, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, as well as lesser known scribes, adding to a crush list which seems to grow each day as I discover other classic and modern writers of the Weird and supernatural who glorify in the short form.
Of the contemporary writers working in speculative fiction today, the ones I enjoy most are also those who primarily (or even only) write short stories.
I think it is more difficult to write an effective short story than a good novel, as – aside from size – novels have the luxury of bloat, and can absorb tangents and weak pages/chapters that would destroy a short story. Short form tales have to be leaner, meaner, and pack a more efficient punch. There’s an art and a magic to a well told short story, which is why I’m constantly shocked (although I shouldn’t be) when I realize how unpopular short stories and short story collections are with the wider reading public. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is recognized as not only the best short story ever written, but perhaps the greatest STORY ever penned. It was a short story. HPL ONLY wrote shorts (and novellas, which are just long form shorts). Ligotti, and CAS, too. Klein’s best works were his story tales. I read very few novels these days, from any era, but consume shorts by the bushel basket.
All that said, I plan on writing a novel or two before I’m done, because I think expanding out ideas into so much available space sounds exciting.
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? J
A: My work has been published in such print anthologies as Dead But Dreaming 2, The Aklonomicon, Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities (YAY!), Horror for the Holidays, and the upcoming anthologies Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology, Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk, and Mark of the Beast, among a few more still in progress; and in the electronic publications Lovecraft eZine and Eschatology Journal. In addition to fiction, I write essays and non-fiction pieces for The Teeming Brain, We Love Monsters, The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon Amateur Press Association (edited by S. T. Joshi); and serve as Fiction Editor of Strange Aeons magazine. My debut short fiction release will be a joint collection with my wife Ives Hovanessian, titled I Am Death, Cried the Vulture, which will be published in 2013, with a second solo fiction collection slated for release in 2014.
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: After subbing a few Lovecraftian/Cosmic tales just the last few days, I’m currently working on several dark fiction tales (and futzing around with two novel outlines) that are decidedly non-Lovecraftian, as I want to stretch my wings a bit. But, Cosmic Horror has and will always influence my writing, so even those stories that don’t seem to have any overt ‘Craftian elements.
In parallel to these projects, I’m slowly developing some new Lovecraftian terrestrial real estate through a series of stories that are either set in or around Salt Creek, Nebraska, a fictional town erected many strange aeons (*cough*) ago in the Sandhills of west-central Nebraska. It’s my love/hate letter to the land of my American ancestors, where I spent my life from 5th grade until five years out of university. There is something quite terrifying about all that sky, all that open space…
Q: Do you have any advice for upcoming writers who want to pen weird stories?
A: READ, damn it. Fill your brain to the bursting point with the good stuff, starting with writers that you truly enjoy, and then work your way backward and outward, reading those writers who inspired the writers you love best. That was my path as far as Weird/Horror Fiction, starting with Lovecraft, and then working down the spiral of the Weird Fiction spiderweb. And don’t limit your reading. Read it all, especially non-fiction and various news outlets. You’d be surprised by how many of my story ideas were born while listening to NPR, perusing a blog, or paging through Vanity Fair.
Once you have your fuel squared away, just write what you love, in whatever style and genre that suits your fancy. You’ll never have fun being someone you’re not, so be yourself. When a singer opens their mouth, what comes out is what comes out. You can’t change how you sing, regardless of what imitation you try.
Also, don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to walk away. Writing isn’t for everyone, and that’s totally fine. One doesn’t need to be a writer to enjoy being a reader and overall fan of genre or wider fiction.
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: The pleasure is all mine, Henrik. Thank you for asking the roster of this superb antho to share their thoughts, as I’m always curious to hear from writers about the process, their inspiration for a certain tale, etc.
As for words of wisdom, I think I covered it just above. My final word is that I apologize for taking up so much cyberspace with my rambling. I’m usually on the other side of the microphone, so when it is turned around, I tend to prattle on. But, really, in this celebrity dominated culture, where fucking dummies and vacant-eyed socialites occupy so much ether and air time, I figure it might be okay for a discussion about Lovecraftian and Horror Fiction to run a bit long, even if it does drown out an important story on a C-Lister’s shopping spree.
But, perhaps not. I guess we’ll see…
That’s it, folks. What a great interview:-)
Here’s a couple of links to Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities:
H. Harksen Production’s own webshop