Here we are, after a brief hiatus, with the continued serialisation of the Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature, which I am co-editing with my long-time collaborator Jim Rockhill. (How many years has it been now, Jim?)
This is a project we started work on sometime in 2017 — although it’s something we had talked about for longer than that. Our goal is to create a resource for both readers and scholars, not unlike E. F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (1985), showing the rich extent of Ireland’s contributions to supernatural literature and its related genres. The first entries appeared in Issue 11, back in 2018, and continued through Issue 12 and Issue 13. In the “Editor’s Notes” for those issues you’ll also find more details on the background of this project, plus how we as editors have set about defining the criteria to guide us through such an enormous task.
It’s been three years now, and, near as I can reckon, we’re somewhere over the halfway mark. When we initially embarked on this journey, neither Jim nor myself quite realised the scope of the undertaking. Perhaps it’s good that we hadn’t as we might have been instilled with a deep sense of daunting fear and put off entirely. But that’s not what happened, and so here we are with another issue filled cover to cover with more fascinating entries on an array of Irish authors whose lives and works span the better part of three centuries.
I have to say, I’m grateful that we have The Green Book as a venue in which to serialise these entries, otherwise they might have temporarily languished as we continue to work towards (with luck) a collected single volume. It’s been a long road so far, and, just now passing the midway point, we’ve still a long way to go.
On the plus side, as I’m working on these entries, I’ve personally been learning so much, finding new connections, asking more questions, making lists of things I ought to read and explore. For me, our Guide is already doing what it’s supposed to do?
With that in mind, I hope you’ll enjoy this issue. Some big names in this one, including J. S. Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, and Elizabeth Bowen; along with some names that might be less familiar, but I hope all the more thrilling for it.
I would also like to welcome some new contributors to this issue, including Janis Dawson, Paul Murray, and Nicola Darwood. We’ll be hearing more from each of them in future issues.
In the meantime, I hope you and your communities are staying safe, healthy, and happily reading.
Bradbury’s work has been with me my entire life. I suspect my earliest encounter with his writing was through the television anthology series, The Ray Bradbury Theatre (1985-92); “The Banshee” was then, as now, one of my favourite episodes: Peter O’Toole starring as cocksure director, Charles Martin Smith as the precocious writer, terrified—like me, then as now—of what wailed in the grounds outside the big house. In middle school I read The Martian Chronicles, and my head cracked open with a sense of wonder for the Red Planet and beyond. I spent my adolescence scouring second-hand bookshops for as many collections as I could find; each of Bradbury’s stories were, to me, compact marvels, precise and alive with metaphor.
It wasn’t until university that I read Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical reverie of Ireland. I admit, it might in part have played a role in my moving to Dublin a few years later. In fact, The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980) was one of two books I brought with me when I moved. These marvelous stories still keep me company to this day.
Based in Rathmines these past twenty years, I now find myself editing The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. For Issue 2, I commissioned Steve Gronert Ellerhoff to write an article on Bradbury’s time in Ireland. Like me, Steve is a Midwesterner with a passion for Bradbury, delighting in exploring the author’s many Dublin connections. Clearly Bradbury’s love for Ireland never left him, and over the subsequent decades he penned a number of stories inspired by his time here. He later gathered together these stories and wove them into the novel Green Shadows, White Whale. For the day that’s in it, here is a reprint of Steve’s article exploring the composition of that book, a celebration of the life and work of Ray Bradbury, not Irish, but very much one of our own.
– Brian J. Showers
The Long Reach of Green Shadows: Ray Bradbury’s Memories of Ireland
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff
“What was I? I was a bag of potatoes that grew up in Ireland finally.”
– Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)—born one hundred years ago today—was a connoisseur of nostalgia, an artist who drew again and again from his own longed-for past. His Orphean gaze often looked over shoulder to his Illinois childhood, culminating in cycles of Midwestern stories written from an agreeable adulthood exile in Southern California. Dandelion Wine (1957), his third novel, brings together tales about Douglas Spalding of Green Town, both boy and community bearing autobiographical dimensions. Green Town stood in for his hometown of Waukegan, while Douglas was a fictionalised composite of his childhood self: his middle name was Douglas, while Spaulding had been his father’s and grandfather’s middle name. As Bradbury lived and experienced life, this alter ego appeared in short fiction, inspired so often by actual events. So it was that when Bradbury spent six months in Ireland adapting Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) for the silver screen, Doug was sure to follow.
Bradbury’s term in Ireland came along with the screenwriting job. His boss, film director John Huston (1906-1987), was then renting a Georgian country house in County Kildare called Courtown and wanted the writer working nearby. So it was that in early October 1953, Bradbury, his wife Maggie, their two daughters, and a nanny arrived in Dún Laoghaire from the UK by ferry. Huston put them up at the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in Dublin and Bradbury set to work, adapting Melville’s whaling epic for the man famous for directing The Maltese Falcon. Many nights were spent being driven by cab to Courtown to review his progress with Huston, who vacillated between praising and belittling the writer, whose sensitivities, in turn, gave way to anxieties. The Irish winter and professional pressures proved a toxic combination. “I was suicidal,” Bradbury said, “for the first time in my life” (Weller, Chronicles 222). On 1 February 1954, he sent his family to Sicily so they might find some relaxation following the stress and stayed on alone to do battle with the white whale. During this time he revised the final two thirds of his screenplay, his relationship with Huston deteriorating beyond true reconciliation. He left Ireland at the beginning of April from his point of entry, Dún Laoghaire Port, never to return for an extended stay.
Despite the grief and depression, Bradbury would, as he did with his childhood and trips to Mexico, cultivate nostalgia for Ireland. Biographer Sam Weller writes that “as painful as many of the memories were, there was something undeniably romantic about the loneliness he had felt there” (239). Bradbury recalled this tug in 2009 when introducing a performance of one of his Irish plays, Falling Upward: “When I got home a voice said in my mind, ‘Ray, darling.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s your cab driver that drove you out along the Liffey three days a week to meet with John Huston. Do you remember that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Would you mind puttin’ it down?’ ”. “The First Night of Lent”, the first of his fictional shapings of his Irish experiences, was published in the March 1956 issue of Playboy, two years after he left. More Irish stories would follow over the next thirty-five years, culminating in his eighth novel, Green Shadows, White Whale (1992).
Bradbury fraternally twinned his title to screenwriter Peter Viertel’s roman à clefWhite Hunter, Black Heart (1953). Written shortly after his adaptation of C. S. Forester’s The African Queen for Huston, Viertel’s novel depicts a screenwriter struggling with film director John Wilson, who nearly sabotages his own film with an obsession for hunting elephants. Green Shadows, White Whale, pieced together nearly forty years after Viertel’s book, depicts a screenwriter struggling to adapt Melville for John Huston, this time named outright. Bradbury quilted his novel from many, but not all, of the Irish stories written over three decades, adding material as needed to pattern his own semiautobiographical account. Of the twelve previously published stories used, nine debuted in magazines before 1970, setting composition of much of the book’s content well before its publication. “The Hunt Wedding”, an essay that appeared in The American Way (May 1992), is also incorporated. Three of the stories were also published by Dial Press in 1963 as one-act plays in The Anthem Sprinters & Other Antics, and in 1988 Bradbury pieced two of these one-acts together to produce the play Falling Upward. Also worth noting is the fact that leading up to the novel, Bradbury adapted several of the Irish stories for his television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater, which ran from 1985 to 1992 (“The Banshee”, starring Peter O’Toole; “The Haunting of the New”; and “The Anthem Sprinters”). And yet even more, the story “The Better Part of Wisdom” (1976) and the one-act “A Clear View of an Irish Mist” (1963), which fall within Bradbury’s Irish work, did not become parts of the novel. Their exclusion indicates that Green Shadows is more than a cut-and-paste effort.
When the stories were initially published, Bradbury’s alter ego, Douglas, was sometimes named as the screenwriter who has arrived in Dublin to work on a film. He narrates “The First Night of Lent” (1956), “The Anthem Sprinters” (1963), and “Banshee” (1984, as Douglas Rogers). Though not identified by name, it can be assumed that Douglas also narrates “A Wild Night in Galway” (1959), “The Beggar on the O’Connell Bridge” (1961), “Getting Through Sunday Somehow” (1962), and “McGilahee’s Brat” (1970). When these stories occur in Green Shadows, there is no mention of Douglas—or the name Ray Bradbury. Bradbury-as-narrator allows Huston to call him H. G., short for H. G. Wells. Later, a fictional former flame, Nora (Barnacle perhaps?), calls him William, Willy, Will, flattering him with a pet name alluding to Shakespeare (In the original short story, “The Haunting of the New” , he is Charles, Charlie, Chuck, carrying no literary allusion). Bradbury remains reluctant to identify himself fully in the text, even though the dust jacket blurb on the first edition underlines his biographical connection to Ireland and the story contained.
Perhaps his distancing comes down to the mechanics of fiction-infused memoir. While Bradbury is happy to admit that the novel is inspired by actual events, whereas he even names John Huston and Huston’s fourth wife Ricki, he has all but excised his own family from the Irish experience. Bradbury depicts his time on the island as spent alone, even though his wife, daughters, and their nanny were actually with him for four of the six months. Also absent from the novel are the Hustons’ children Anjelica and Tony. We can speculate any number of reasons for these choices, from the idea that Bradbury was protecting the innocent, so to speak, to the possibility that practicality won out, as populating a narrative with full-fledged families brings considerably complicating factors. The only certainty is that when fusing his life and prior fiction into the novel, Bradbury left certain people out of the story, much the same way he cut fire-worshipping Fedallah from Moby-Dick when writing his screenplay. The familial exclusion has a profound effect, in particular on chapter 13, revised from “The Beggar on the O’Connell Bridge”. When initially published in the Saturday Evening Post (14 January 1961), the narrator’s wife plays his foil; in Green Shadows, the wife is simply replaced, often with dialogue intact, by the saturnine Huston.
In his final years, Bradbury often credited his experiences in Ireland as having established him financially secure as a writer with a respected reputation. Whereas Viertel rushed to express the trauma of working for John Huston in his own novel, Bradbury waited decades, until he was on the other side of adulthood, to put it all together. Biographer and scholar Jon R. Eller has said that the novel “offers a balanced view of events, tempered by the passage of time” (55). The screenwriting job forms the basis of his narrator’s focus, though it often slips out of the narrative as episodic events emerge. While Huston is cast as Ahab to Bradbury’s Starbuck, Ireland and the Irish repeatedly interrupt their self-imposed and often frustrating work together. That is not to say Ireland and the Irish are used merely as comic relief, though there is plenty of comedy and the narrator often takes relief in their company. The question they repeatedly pose the screenwriter is asked upfront in the book’s opening scene by the customs inspector in Dún Laoghaire: “Your reason for being in Ireland?”
“Reason has nothing to do with it,” he answers (2). There is no tie to Moby-Dick that would make adapting it on Irish soil pertinent. Indeed, these Americans are in Ireland simply because they can be. In Melville’s novel, Ishmael asks, “What to that redoubted harpooner, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish?” (310). According to whaling rules, “A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it” (308). John Bull stands in for England in Ishmael’s statement, but the same could be said about John Huston. Huston’s choice of Ireland was his simply because he felt entitled to it. Bradbury offers fox-hunts and horse riding as Huston’s main draw to the island, not the people, the culture, the history, or even the common American lure of ancestry. There is not a single good reason for the narrator to be brought far from his home in Southern California, the capital of American filmmaking, where screenwriting is an industry. Huston’s irrational choice of work setting carries the effect of making every encounter Bradbury’s narrator has with Ireland a twinkling of serendipity.
For Bradbury, who proudly sentimentalised whatever he loved, Ireland receives his signature nostalgic treatment. Stereotypes of the land and people abound. Ireland is green: “Not just one ordinary sort of green, but every shade and variation. Even the shadows were green” (1). Rain abounds, as does fog, the weather played up in a typical fashion. But where many narratives of a stranger in a known land will use local landmarks to excess, Green Shadows remains innocent of that literary misdemeanor. Dublin is largely limited to Grafton Street, St. Stephen’s Green, and the O’Connell Bridge. When dealing with Huston, the setting typically shifts to the grounds of Courtown in County Kildare and, to recover from the stress, Heeber Finn’s Pub in Kilcock. There are no side-trips to kiss the Blarney Stone, sheep-gaze at Tara, or walk the Giant’s Causeway in the North. Green Shadows does not stand as a traditional travel narrative, and while the narrator is conscious of his own naiveté—“ ‘Kind to Dogs’ is writ on my brow,” he claims (90)—this is not The Innocents Abroad.
“The greatest temptation for a writer in dealing with the Irish,” wrote Irish critic Bruce Cook in his 1966 article “Ray Bradbury and the Irish”, “is to be taken in by their quaintness” (225). Coming from the Midwest, the region most stereotypically equated with quaintness in the United States, Bradbury plays up this quality in the Irish while also playing it up in his narrator. It is difficult to fault him with it when he so readily makes it a foundational aspect of his alter ego. His folksy, hail-fellow-well-met manner harmonises with that presented by the Irish characters and forms an in-road to their lives; friendliness meets friendliness, and there relations remain. There are no intimate connections made, though casual friendships are plentiful. Cab driver Nick and publican Heeber Finn receive the most attention, Finn even taking over narration in chapters 12 and 18, telling tales published earlier as “The Terrible Conflagration Up at the Place” (1969) and “One for His Lordship, and One for the Road!” (1985), and chapter 26, in which he relates a story about George Bernard Shaw visiting his pub. These are the only instances where the narrator yields to an Irish character and show Bradbury’s effort to represent a sustained Irish voice. He does not attempt to render brogue through phonetic spellings, apart from the odd “Jaisus”, and this is to his credit. While the characters’ speech may not always ring true to an Irish reader, it can hardly offend.
The pub stories are often humorous, focusing on playful conflicts between locals and gentry, represented here as Lord Kilgotten. One of Finn’s tales recounts an episode from the revolution where their intention to burn down the lord’s house is foiled by Kilgotten’s gentle appeal that they spare his artwork, which all appreciate. In the other, old Kilgotten has died, his departure “like the Normans’ rowing back to France or the damned Brits pulling out of Bombay” (129), and his intention to take his wine collection to the grave with him is circumvented by a crowd of thirsty villagers all too happy to make sure that his last wish come true. “And bless this wine, which may circumnavigate along the way, but finally wind up where it should be going,” they solemnly swear. “And if today and tonight won’t do, and all the stuff not drunk, bless us as we return each night until the deed is done and the soul of the wine’s at rest” (139). These tales are not so much parody of Ireland’s fight for independence as they are Bradbury’s pastiche of the stories he heard told in pubs by the people he met.
Another demographic that receives attention is the urban poor of Dublin, beggars being central in two distinct episodes. Bradbury, a survivor of the Great Depression, was not ignorant of hardship. His father was out of work for long periods during his childhood and lack of money dictated that the suit he wore to high school graduation came from an uncle who had been shot dead wearing it. But in the early fifties he was also getting to know American prosperity, making his living as a writer in the postwar years. His anxieties about money and the potential lack of it are present in his fixation on Irish beggars. In the first episode he resolves to help a blind concertina-player, often seen on the O’Connell Bridge, by buying him a cap to keep his head dry, only to discover the man committed suicide the day before by jumping into the Liffey. A rare Dublin snow falls and the narrator, standing outside the Royal Hibernian Hotel where he is staying, looks up at the lit windows wondering what it is like inside. This is his private, conscious attempt to put himself in the beggar’s place. Later in the novel, he does interact with some beggars he recognises from his first trip to Ireland, fifteen years in the past. The catch is that the woman’s infant has not grown in all that time, the narrator discovering that the babe is actually her dwarf brother, McGillahee’s Brat. His attitude to the beggars this go around has him unmasking the ruse before adopting a conspiratorial stance, promising to keep their secret and not write about it for thirty years. The siblings’ hope is to save enough money to immigrate to New York, a Tír na nÓg wish the narrator supports. And so Bradbury’s Dublin is home to beggars both despondent and hopeful. Their presence provides a contrast to the bored wealth displayed by Huston and his acquaintances among the foxhunting class.
Bradbury’s summation of the Irish people in the end is based on the observations not of a Hibernophile, but a working visitor. Finn asks him, at his departure and the close of the novel, “On the Irish now. Have you crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s? How would you best describe . . . ?” (269). The narrator’s insight, for what it is worth, comes down to his appreciation for the people’s imagination:
“Imagination,” I went on. “Great God, everything’s wrong. Where are you? On a flyspeck isle nine thousand miles north of nowhere!! What wealth is there? None! What natural resources? Only one: the resourceful genius, the golden mind, of everyone I’ve met! The mind that looks out the eyes, the words that roll off the tongue in response to events no bigger than the eye of a needle! From so little you glean so much; squeeze the last ounce of life from a flower with one petal, a night with no stars, a day with no sun, a theater haunted by old films, a bump on the head that in America would have been treated with a Band-Aid. Here and everywhere in Ireland, it goes on. Someone picks up a string, someone else ties a knot in it, a third one adds a bow, and by morn you’ve got a rug on the floor, a drape at the window, a harp-thread tapestry singing on the wall, all starting from that string! The Church puts her on her knees, the weather drowns her, politics all but buries her . . . but Ireland still sprints for that far exit. And do you know, by God, I think she’ll make it!” (269-70)
A portion of his declaration echoes Shaw from Finn’s earlier story: “The Irish. From so little they glean so much: squeeze the last ounce of joy from a flower with no petals, a night with no stars, a day with no sun” (197). And while his narrator’s exposure to Shaw in the novel amounts to what Finn has told him, Bradbury actually attended a performance of Shaw’s play St. Joan while living in Dublin. The production marked the beginning of his love for Shaw, which intensified as he aged. In 1976 he published a tribute, “G.B.S.—Mark V,” the story of a lonesome astronaut who befriends the robotic George Bernard Shaw installed on his rocket. And of Shaw’s collected play prefaces, Bradbury in his eighth decade would say, “That book is my bible” (Weller, Listen 162). Shaw was his favorite writer in the second half of his life, making it deliberate that the narrator in Green Shadows should in the end turn to Shaw-via-Finn in his attempt to understand the Irish.
The men at the pub do not react to his summation of them. They do not stand or see him out as he leaves for good, making for a most casual farewell. There is no Lion, Tin Woodsman, or Scarecrow to embrace, the many acquaintances he made remaining just that: acquaintances. The novel is dedicated in part “to the memory of Heeber Finn, Nick (Mike) my taxi driver, and all the boyos in the pub . . . ” Memory of his cab driver spurred Bradbury to write his first Irish tale and it is to memory that he offered a novel nearly forty years later. Scholars Eller and William F. Touponce believe “Bradbury’s Irish ultimately turns out to be a reflection of his own concerns . . . about affirming the life of the imagination even in the presence of overwhelming negativity” (426). It is also his way of giving thanks to Ireland for providing the ground upon which he crossed the threshold into his own maturity.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.
Weller, Sam. The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Weller, Sam. Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010.
About the Author
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff holds a PhD in English from Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of Mole (Reaktion Books) and Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Golden Apples of the Monkey House (Routledge). Honouring Bradbury’s centenary in 2020, he co-edited Exploring the Horror of Supernatural Fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (Routledge). Currently he is writing Jung and the Mythology of Star Wars and a novel. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far Tower, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.
Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.
In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?
Timothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.
And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.
Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.
LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?
TJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”
Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.
I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.
LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?
TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.
I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.
LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?
TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.
LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?
Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.
LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?
TJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.
LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?
TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.
Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.