T. E. Grau is one of the many young Turks of the latest renaissance in Weird fiction who staked his claim in the woolly territory last year with the publication of his first collection The Nameless Dark (reviewed here) from Lethe Press. His stories of eldritch terror and gritty nihilism have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, and the collection itself was nominated for a number of “Best Of-” awards. He also maintains The Cosmicomicon, a site that acts as both author page and a hotspot for reviews and interviews with other luminaries of the genre. Currently hard at work on his next two novellas for This Is Horror, Grau hopped aboard the Omnibus the other day to discuss the challenges of loving Lovecraft, the place for hope in horror, and lessons learned from writing for the screen.
• How have things been going?
Things have been going well, Jose. Thank you for asking. Busy as hell, but that’s always a positive.
• You initially began writing for film early in your career before making the transition to prose. What were some of your cinematic efforts like? Were there any lessons or traits you picked up while screenwriting that have carried over into your current work?
My cinematic efforts, outside of some earlier spec scripts I wrote, were the written equivalent of damp, three-day-old toast, and just about as enjoyable. It’s not a medium for writers, unless you approach it from a position of power and control on a project, from the top-down instead of the bottom-up. Too many people involved, too many producers and others who justify their jobs by providing endless, nonsensical notes. Projects are too expensive to take any chances, so you normally get a watered down finished product that appeals to the widest demographic possible and says absolutely nothing new. It’s a ridiculous business run like a widget factory, strangled by fear of failure, possessed of a misunderstanding of the audience that occasionally stumbles into staggering beauty, and certainly isn’t for me and what I value. Or maybe I just really suck at screenwriting. Dunno, really. Television is where writers get the respect and control they deserve, which is probably why most of the best filmed entertainment the last several years has been on the small screen.
I did learn several good lessons in the 11+ years I wrote scripts, which is that not everything that slides off your pen is precious and worthy of eternal life, and you can – and should – dump entire sections of text that might have taken you days or weeks to create if it doesn’t serve the story. Hollywood also taught me to get over myself, and was my first taste of a town and an industry where talented writers are everywhere, with more arriving by the minute, so you better step your game up and come correct every single day, because no one is impressed with someone who merely puts words on paper.
• You’ve discussed the unnecessary distinctions of “genre” and “literary” fiction before. In your mind, who are some of the people that best help to blur the lines and beat down the walls built between the two? What is that you see in their writing that you hope to instill in your own stories?
Brian Evenson immediately springs to mind, as a) he is probably the best example of someone who writes incredibly dark fiction, and even horror fiction, while rarely (if ever?) relying upon the supernatural as a plot cheat, and b) I’m currently reading his extraordinary new collection of short stories A Collapse of Horses. Brian is literary and he’s genre and he’s neither. He just writes amazing stories that are full of truth, brutality, humor, and pitch darkness.
But I also think about writers like Michael Marshall Smith, Glen Hirshberg, Cormac McCarthy, and the master of the Genre Blur, Flannery O’Connor, who just might be the best writer who ever lived, and who wrote crushingly dark stories entirely based in realistic or “literary” settings. Evenson is a lot like Flannery in many ways, just with a sturdier frame and deeper roots in Mormonism.
I admire what these writers do, and I strive for that literary ambiguity in many of my current pieces. A good portion of my upcoming work will be harder to classify, I think, but probably just as bleak. My goal is to be more surprising and less obvious in future pages while never sacrificing intent, which is usually some shade of pessimism about the human condition and nature of the universe. Introducing readers to monsters that they can actually meet in real life.
• A fair amount of your stories are populated by dreamers and wanderers, those hoping to renew their faith and sense of being by pulling up stakes or taking a chance on a wild fantasy, but always there seems to be opposing (or cosmically indifferent) forces on every side waiting to descend. Do you identify with these characters to some extent, and do you see the world as an ultimately hostile environment?
I suppose I do identify with this sort of character, or at least did in my earlier years. I’m much more settled now, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and even geographically, than I was back when I started futzing around with writing in college, when I first got into the Beats, Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski, Vonnegut, T.S. Elliot and various other cynical drifters. So, I still have a bit of that residual wanderer thing stamped into my juvenile psyche, even though that isn’t who I am anymore. As for being a dreamer, I’ll never outgrow that, as I don’t know how. Dreams and wonder and exploring shit that I think is cool and weird and scary fuels me creatively each and every day, and pushes me to attempt a translation into words the stuff I see in my head. I count myself blessed to have either been born with an active imagination, or allowed to develop it at an early age through fantasy fiction, Dungeons & Dragons, pulp magazines, wandering in the woods, long dangerous bike rides, and just the overall weird, dark/trippy vibe of the 1970’s, which was dealing rather dramatically with the death of 1960’s optimism and utopian idealism. I feel like my generation is the last one to play outside, from sun up to sun down, without any parental supervision. I’d never allow my kid to do that these days (I’m part of the problem, I realize), but I’m glad my parents and their peers never gave a second thought to child safety back when I was a lad.
• Generally speaking, the endings to your stories tend to be dark, at least for someone. Do you feel that this is the only natural conclusion for a tale of horror? Do hopeful or optimistic resolutions tend to feel tacked-on when you encounter it in the works of others?
A horror tale can certainly conclude with a happy ending, but I probably won’t be the fella who writes it. The true goal of any horror story – for my money – is the experience of dread, discomfort, disquiet, and perhaps danger, and even terror. Death is secondary to everything that happens up to that point, or what happens after it.
I love a good happy ending (in movies, mostly) as much as the next person, and don’t begrudge a writer if they want to conclude their story in that way. But when I write something dark, I don’t want to let the reader out at the end. I want them to know that it never ends, and will go on and on and on. The forces of good don’t triumph because good is stronger than evil. Good triumphs based on random factors, aided by being resourceful and smart. And lucky. Very, very lucky. And because the writer wrote it that way. Good and evil can be so relative and subjective anyway, which is why I rarely deal in terms that are so black and white. White is the color of bones, dry rock, maggots, nothingness, endless snow. Black is the color of space, rain clouds, deep water, and what we see when we close our eyes. Which one is positive and which one negative?
• Inspiration from the tales of H. P. Lovecraft has fueled the premises behind a number of the stories in The Nameless Dark. As a fan of his works, how might you convey the importance or vitality of Lovecraft’s oeuvre to, say, a reader who was new to the field and expressed some trepidation due to the recent furor surrounding the author’s personal beliefs?
There are quite a few Lovecraftian and Mythos stories in The Nameless Dark because writing Lovecraftian fiction was my bridge into prose. Sparing everyone the long story of my transition from writing scripts to writing short fiction, my first half dozen or more story sales were to books with “Cthulhu” in the title or the tagline. With The Nameless Dark being my first collection, I wanted to include many of those earlier works, which gives the book a decidedly Mythos-heavy feel to it. I can say with supreme confidence that this will be the last time a collection of mine is lopsided in such a way.
Regarding the recent discussion about Lovecraft, his racism, and his status as an icon of weird and horror fiction, I usually don’t comment on any of this, as so many others already have, and usually nothing good comes out of it aside from arguments, misunderstandings, name calling, hurt feelings, chest thumping, and team gathering. But, I suppose I would say that any artist should be judged by the work they have left behind, not the quality of their character. This might seem like a rationalization from a guy who has written in the universe of someone who has expressed loathsome opinions that run contrary (to say the least) to one’s own feelings, but when Lovecraft’s racism came to my attention, I was forced to examine the issue and come to terms with my feelings about the whole thing. I also looked at other writers whose work I admire, including Hunter S. Thompson, and a litany of other creatives and innovators throughout history that didn’t always conduct themselves in very positive ways, and held horrible personal convictions. Andrew Jackson, of the $20 bill, was a slave trader. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton were serial adulterers. Teddy Roosevelt was a war mongering imperialist, possible white supremacist, and probably also a racist. So was Churchill. Many, many people where back then. Many, many people are today.
Lovecraft’s racism is problematic to me, to put it mildly, and brought me to the conclusion that I virulently oppose him as a person while enjoying his creative output. Meaning, I will read his stories, but won’t be toasting to his memory, or visiting his gravesite or a statue erected in his honor. After all that I’ve taken from him, he has now become that black sheep member of one’s family, acknowledged, tolerated, but not embraced. To claim anything else would be disingenuous, and a lie. I will also add that I haven’t read a Lovecraft story in several years, and don’t plan to anytime soon. The idea of it sort of makes me feel queasy, but that’s not to say I will never read another HPL story. I just don’t know right now when, or why I would.
Another example that I came up with while mulling over this issue is the classical music station in Los Angeles, which continues to play Richard Wagner, a “German nationalist” (ahem) and thinly veiled anti-Semite who may or may not have been a small but nonetheless inspirational force in the founding of the Nazi Party. Wagner’s music is broadcast and performed throughout a city that has a proud and vibrant Jewish community and heritage, and is a bastion for Progressive thought in the U.S. If Jews and Liberals can listen to Wagner, I can continue to read Lovecraft. Again, this might be a rationalization, an easy way out for someone who owes a lot to a person I would never embrace in real life. I don’t know. Being the dullard I am, I never saw the warning signs in his characters and depictions, and never found out about his views on race until years after first falling for his fiction. By then, he had become family, albeit occupying the Embarrassing Branch, where he isn’t alone in my family tree.
The old sayings “never meet your heroes” and “you can’t choose your family” certainly apply here.
• In this same vein, what would you say your own stories have brought to the strain of bleak cosmicism in the genre? In addition to the themes discussed within the collection—the blindness of patriotism in “Free Fireworks”; the dissolution of marital love in “Return of the Prodigy”—are there certain ideas or domains that you wish still to explore in this narrative mode?
Cosmic horror can either serve as a backdrop, or the driver of the plot. I’ve done both, as one of my favorite types of horror is the cosmic variety, where the universe either doesn’t care enough about you to notice, or does notice and just shrugs.
I don’t know if I’ve added anything original to the genre, but I hope I’ve held up my end of the bargain as someone writing in that omnisphere, producing stories that – at the very least – don’t detract from the canon.
Moving forward, I have plans to explore cosmicism as a counter-balance to creation myths, while finding new and darker ways to show just how little importance humanity has in the vast cosmos, and how little control over whatever might be out there watching – or ignoring – us.
• We get a glimpse into a world of sugar-coated fantasy in “Mr. Lupus,” one that dips into your self-confessed adoration of the majestic holiday season as depicted in the works of artists such as Thomas Kinkade. You have also acted as a presenter on the autumnal celebrations of Ray Bradbury. What significance does the latter holiday have for you, and are there any plans in the works to depict a Halloween Town in your fiction as counterpoint to the Christmas Wonderland in “Mr. Lupus”?
My wife (Ives Hovanessian) came up with a brutal idea set during one Halloween night of a married couple taking their young daughter trick or treating in a beautiful, main street town that I’d love to write with her someday.
As for doing a “Mr. Lupus” treatment for Halloween, the idea had never occurred to me until now, but I’m very intrigued. I’ll point a portion of my brain in that direction and see what I can come up with.
I love Bradbury in so many ways, although I didn’t start reading him with any serious focus until just a few years ago. So, he’s not really an influence so much as an inspiration. Very few writers of genre fiction have done it better than Bradbury, and with as much dignity, class, power, and grace. I adore him.
• The talking squid whose Beat poetry reading you’ve just attended has provided you with instructions on how to perform an arcane ritual that will grant you the ability to realize one of your ultimate dream projects. What is it?
That’s a good question. In thinking about it, right now, it would probably be finishing a novel I’ve started set in South Los Angeles that’s a sort of real life super hero tale, with nods to Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE and the Grim Sleeper case, and then adapting it into a graphic novel, into a film, and then into a television series. I’m not going to release the title until it’s finished and I start shopping it, but I’m super excited about it, and think it has the potential to work well in several mediums. 99.9% of the characters are non-white, which I only mention not to get a pat on the back, but because I think it’s fucking tragic that non-white folks have so little to choose from in terms of quality genre product that features non-white protagonists. The Oscars these last two years have reflected that, but looking around at books, comics, and film (TV is a little better), I think its so sad that an African American, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Central/East Asian child (or adult) can’t find anyone that looks or sounds like them doing cool, exciting, even fantastical/magical things. I want to change that in whatever small way I can. Not all the time, and not with every project, but it will be part of my output over the course of my career. I feel it’s my duty as an American and citizen of the world.
If I could squeeze out another dream project from amongst the squidy tentacles, it would be a series of books and graphic novels set in my fictional town of Salt Creek, Nebraska, covering a variety of eras in the evolution (or not) of this odd place.
• What are some of the most important things you have learned in your life as a writer so far? What are the things you believe you are still learning?
I’ve learned to write for myself, and for my family, and what I believe in and want to say, and not for anyone else, or any genre or scene. I’ve learned that neither of those latter things have your best interest at heart, nor can be relied upon in any long-term way. As for what I’m still learning, it would have to be how to write clean, without fluff, and trust that the story will be good enough on its own without any trappings. Every day I try more and more to get out of my own way when I type out a sentence. And to edit like crazy, even when you’re sick of the story.
• As a fellow devotee of the short tale, what are some examples of your lifelong loves or recent favorites from the land of dark speculative fiction?
Short pieces of dark fiction are my favorite thing to read. Some of the best I’ve ever read that have come from those who have passed on include Flannery O’Connor, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert E. Howard, Karl Edward Wagner, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson, Jonathan Swift, Algernon Blackwood, Robert W. Chambers, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, John Cheever, Fritz Leiber, William Hope Hodgson, Robert Bloch, Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Patricia Highsmith, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, Michael Shea, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Maurice Sendak, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and Mark Twain, among so many others.
Contemporary (living) writers of the short grim tale that I most certainly recommend to all readers of outstanding fiction include Thomas Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Lawrence Block, Brian Evenson, Michael Marshall Smith, Adam Nevill, Stephen King, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, Nathan Ballingrud, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, Richard Gavin, John Langan, Molly Tanzer, Ray Cluley, Livia Llewellyn, Paul Tremblay, Clive Barker, Gary McMahon, John Mantooth, Jeffrey Thomas, Joe R. Lansdale, Nicole Cushing, Christopher Irvin, Glen Hirshberg, Christopher Slatsky, Seb Doubinsky, Nina Allan, John Claude Smith, Lisa L. Hannett, Richard Thomas, S.P. Miskowski, Peter Straub, Joel Lane, Stephen Graham Jones, Gemma Files, Orrin Grey, Matt Cardin, Michael Cisco, Daniel Mills, Usman Tanveer Malik, Reggie Oliver, Poppy Z. Brite, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Gabino Iglesias, Matthew M. Barlett, Philip Fracassi, Jon Padgett, Stuart Young, Gary Fry, Glynn Owen Barrass, Neil Gaiman, Tim Lebbon, Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Swanwick, George R.R. Martin, and, finally, Cormac McCarthy, who isn’t a short story writer, but needs to be read by everyone anyway.
I’m sure I’m missing many, both alive and not so much, for which I apologize. I rarely list out current writers I enjoy, as I’m so worried about forgetting someone and offending them. This has been an interview of firsts. I suspect it might be my last, as well. 🙂
• Outside the world of writing, how do you enjoy spending your time? Have any hobbies?
I love spending time with my wife and daughter, with as little distraction as possible, aside from maybe some music and a good film (or DOCTOR WHO or GRAVITY FALLS if my kid has control of the remote). After a bit of a misspent youth, I’ve come to the realization that once I found true contentment, and my reason for being here, which is to be a husband and father and provider, the truth of me is that I’m hopelessly square, infinitely devoted to my family, and quite the curmudgeon, which makes me incredibly happy.
• What are you currently working on that we can look forward to?
I recently delivered the first draft of my novella They Don’t Come Home Anymore to publisher This Is Horror. It was a bit of a departure for me, and is as much about alienation, obsession, and the search for meaning in a ridiculous world as it is about vampires. While I await copy edits and cover options, I’m writing my second novella for This Is Horror titled Capstone, which is set in the decidedly American version of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opening with only one, and maybe two, survivors of a three person technician team trying to figure out what’s going on in the latitudes below them after losing contact with the outside world, and their relief chopper, many months before. I’m having fun writing about what happens in far northern reaches when one has been removed from all noise, technology, and news from civilization. Lots of time to think, and listen. One or both of the novellas should be published later this year.
Aside from that, I have a few novels I’m slowly developing (one of them noted a few questions above), and working on a short story or two. I can’t ever just write one thing at a time.
• Thanks for stopping by, Ted.
Thanks for much for having me, Jose. I love the whole spirit of The Haunted Omnibus, and am proud to be a part of it.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.