Acclaimed dark and weird fiction author Simon Strantzas is releasing his fourth collection of short stories, Burnt Black Suns, from Hippocampus Press. I spoke to him about the genre he works in and how he operates as a writer.
TeleRead: Do you think that horror/weird fiction reflects or channels any current social/cultural concerns or shifts, as well as more perennial human preoccupations and anxieties? If so, what might the current resurgence in weird fiction be tapping into?
Strantzas: I do, but I also feel that the full extent of this isn’t all that clear as it’s happening—it’s only clear in hindsight. There are arguments for horror’s appeal when times are tough, and when times aren’t. Which are we in? Which applies? I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question with anything approaching certainty.
As to why weird horror should be gaining popularity now, I think there are a few answers, none of them terribly illuminating. I think weird fiction is not as much increasing in popularity as it is increasing in notice. The rise of technology has allowed weird horror aficionados to find one another, to form bonds, and as these folks interact in communal online spaces, light is shone on weird fiction for others to see. In other words, I think it’s not that the weird has suddenly become more appealing, but that simply more people are in the position to learn about it. Additionally, the rise in technology has forced the western world—with great reluctance on our part—to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, and influences from other cultures is seeping in. One thing other cultures have over us is a better understanding of weird fiction—especially the magical realism strain—and as these cultures further integrate with ours, the stronger the resulting fiction will be. I suspect, if this increase in weird fiction is a real phenomenon, we have barely scratched the surface of how it might transform over the coming years.
TeleRead: What influence do you think the exemplars of Stephen King and Thomas Ligotti have on the best current horror/dark fiction? (including negative, in terms of audience and publisher expectations?)
Strantzas: These authors are of a rare breed in horror circles: they are imitated, and slavishly followed. How many other authors can claim such influence on so many readers? Lovecraft, certainly. Definitely M.R. James. Maybe Ramsey Campbell. But who else? We respect and are influenced by others, but you don’t see many Straubian writers, no group of Barker acolytes, obsessively poring over his work for the clues to life. These men (and in horror, they unfortunately seem to be all men) have dug deep grooves in the genre, and I lay no blame on those authors who have fallen in and can’t find their way out.
Ultimately, though, what pushes the genre forward (or, rather, outward) is not repetition of the past, but innovations toward the future. These were writers who chose a different path than what had done before, and this is why their influence has remained strong. By all means, it’s important for writers to study those that inspire them, and often the best way to understand is to mimic. But it’s even more important for those writers to find a way to internalize what appeals to them most about that work, and synthesize it with their own worldview and vision. It’s not something easily done, else everyone would be doing it, but the only way to expand this genre is to bring more unique viewpoints to it. It’s the sum of these multitudinous facets that make the genre so vibrant to a reader like me.
TeleRead: What are the distinguishing features of cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian vein? (even when it sidesteps Yog-Sothothery?)
Strantzas: I suppose the kernel of it all is man’s insignificance and ignorance and hubris. Since the beginning, we’ve believed we were the centre of everything, because it’s in our nature to do so. I suspect it was an evolutionary imperative. Yet, it ill-prepares us for a world where there is more. Our blindness to what exists outside ourselves and our perceptions is the basis of much supernatural horror fiction, Lovecraftian and not. It just took HPL to focus our attention on it in an interesting and modern way. In a sense, he was right: he was a writer in the wrong time, but though he felt he should have been working decades earlier, his fiction wasn’t prepared to be mass consumed and communicated until now. He is a writer for today’s readers. Far from an anachronistic, he was futuristic.
TeleRead: As a writer, what marketing, promotional, community or other activities do you spend most time on besides writing? Which do you find most distracting, and most rewarding?
Strantzas: I suppose any writer who has come into prominence in the last decade or so has discovered that social media is the most effective tool for developing and maintaining a readership. I can’t imagine there’s a publisher still in business who doesn’t urge its writers to develop an online presence and cultivate it. As someone, somewhere said, if a writer waits until his or her book is accepted for publication before going online, it’s likely already too late.
I spend most of my non-writing time plugged into social media, though which avenues I choose to participate in are geared toward my own comfort level. I don’t experience the distraction with social media other writers report, but I also don’t know many writers working at a professional level who complain much about it. To me, it’s always seemed silly to unplug from the internet in order to work. After all, if writing is truly something that compels a person, that person logically would be compelled to do it above surfing the internet. I have no issue tuning out the world of distractions when I write because, in truth, writing is the thing that distracts me from everything else in my life. It consumes me. If anything, going on social media is a rest, a reprieve, from the constant obsessing.