Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

© Brian J. Showers, August 2018

Uncertainties 3Lynda 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.


Brian J. Showers: This is the first anthology you’ve edited, isn’t it? Given that there are already two instalments in the Uncertainties series, what were your initial thoughts as to how you wanted to approach this project?

Lynda E. Rucker: I’ve always wanted to edit an anthology, but yes, this is the first one I’ve ever done. Initially, I was really unsure whether I wanted to do one that was invitation only or whether I wanted to open it to submissions. I talked with a few other people and editors about it, and in particular had a couple of long conversations with Joe S. Pulver. Talking with Joe convinced me that editing an anthology for the first time was a big enough project without also drowning myself in a slush pile, so in the end I decided to go the invite route.

The idea behind the series was already in place, and I’d read both the previous books and had a sense of the shape I wanted mine to take — although what was interesting was that I ended up with something somewhat different from what I had envisioned. That’s the human element of assembling an anthology. Even when it comes to work by writers you’re familiar with, you can end up being surprised — that’s the mark of a good writer! So there were several instances in which I asked a writer to send me something and I expected a certain type of story and what I got was quite a bit different. I think that was one of the most exciting elements of the process.

Lynda Rucker 01BJS: The thing I love about, broadly speaking, the horror genre, is that there are so many nuances in the approach, each eliciting different sensations: the strange, the grotesque, the weird, the numinous . . . What sort of dark corners does Volume 3 explore? Anything unexpected or surprising?

LER: One recurring theme that emerged in about half of the stories is that of fraught sexual or romantic relationships. That’s a preoccupation in my own work, but it sort of surprised me that it ended up being a dominant theme in the stories writers sent to me. Within the broader remit of the Uncertainties series, which (as I interpreted it!) is to sort of show the world askew, I tried to include a variety of voices and styles and approaches to the uncanny, and I think the anthology really reflects that.

Just to give a few examples without giving away too much — the Matthew M. Bartlett story has a kind of lush decadent feel to it that I think situates it firmly in the realm of the weird; Ralph Robert Moore’s story is a mix of magical realism and a hardboiled American style of writing; and the S. P. Miskowski story starts off somewhere in the territory of mimetic lit-fic and veers off into something much more unsettling — actually it occurs to me just at this moment that there are elements of it that are almost Ballardian. So in all, I think it’s a book that really showcases the scope of the genre.

BJS: I believe you grew up, like so many of us, reading classic anthologies — tales of terror, stories to tingle the spine. Hitchcock and Karloff, Haining and Dalby. Which of those old anthologies (and their editors) were important to you as a reader?

kaddish copyLER: Yes, my grounding and my first encounters with horror fiction is absolutely in those old, classic stories. As for who was specifically important to me, in those days — pre-internet — it was largely a matter of access. I grew up in a small town with the nearest bookstore an hour away, and it was a fairly uninspiring Walden Books in a mall. So I sort of had to make do.

Fortunately, I also grew up in a house full of books and with a mother who liked horror stories, although sadly Haining and Dalby didn’t cross my path. Of the ones you mentioned — absolutely Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery is probably the first horror anthology I ever read. I still remember that F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” and A. M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork” in particular terrified me. I also had an anthology called Shudders, which is where I first encountered “The Monkey’s Paw” along with stories by William Hope Hodgson and Frank Belknap Long, among others. There were a few more — I can’t remember the titles or editors but I think they were all sort of generic packaged anthologies that reprinted classics. It was with that foundation that I went on to read more contemporary stuff — I almost said “moved on”, but that makes it sound like I left those old classics behind and nothing could be further from the truth.

Speaking of “more contemporary”, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some later editors, from the 1980s, who were hugely important in shaping my conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do — David Hartwell with The Dark Descent, Charles L. Grant’s Shadows, and Stuart Gordon Schiff’s Whispers anthologies along with “Year’s Bests” edited by Karl Edward Wagner, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and Stephen Jones & Ramsey Campbell. And of course, those two modern classics, Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil and Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces.

BJS: It’s funny how anthologies seem to be the gateway for so many! You mention your “conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do.” What are the limits to horror as a genre — if it has any?

REFLECTION+copyLER: My inclination is to say “there are no limits!” but that’s a bit disingenuous on my part — if we’re being very literal, obviously there are certain types of stories that can’t be told even within the broadest parameters of the horror genre. But I do resent narrow definitions of horror fiction, more so because they are nearly always formulaic and insulting. Most often, this comes in the belief that horror movies are movies where killers stalk people and kill them in explicit and inventive ways, or they are cheaply made junk with lots of jump scares, and that in literature, it’s adolescent, poorly-written, predictable tripe for the barely literate.

My view of horror is that it is a very broad church. It encompasses everything from the subtlest and most enigmatic of tales to the full-on Grand Guignol. It’s Halloween and Martyrs and The Hills Have Eyes, but it’s also Picnic at Hanging Rock and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Innocents. It’s Gothic literature, it’s ghost stories, it’s supernatural tales.

I think arguments about labelling literature are incredibly tedious, but it does bother me when people try to insist that something isn’t horror basically on the grounds that it is well-written or well-made, that it has depth and resonance and fine prose or is character-driven or has a political consciousness or whatever. And I loathe the fact that people keep throwing decades of amazing horror films and stories under the bus by coining new phrases like “post-horror” and “elevated genre”, and maybe the worst of all, “horror-adjacent” (what does that even mean?) What that says to me, quite simply, is that the person doesn’t know anything about the genre or its history. I also lean toward the idea that horror is really less a genre than it is a mode of literature, “an emotion” as Doug Winter once famously and controversially said.

Trilogy
Clearly, I could go on about this for a while but I probably should just go and write an essay instead. Nina Allan — a fine writer anyone with preconceived notions about the inferiority of the horror genre should check out — has written about this on her blog, and I’d urge anyone who wants to read further on the subject and get some great recommendations to check it out here and here and here.

BJS: I’m sure we could go on about the nuances of horror ad nauseum, and I know there have been a few late nights in the pub where we have — but this wonderfully illuminating exploration of nuance is really what the Uncertainties anthology series is about, isn’t it? So what else have you got in the pipeline these days?

LER: I have a few short stories on the go and a novella, and I’m working on a monograph for the PS Publishing imprint Electric Dreamhouse. I’ve also got a novel on the back burner that I hope to be able to move to the front burner once I get a couple of other projects out of the way. And beyond that, I’ve got a few more distant projects in mind — including an idea for another anthology, actually. Uncertainties 3 was a real pleasure to put together, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I did.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 3 here.


Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.

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Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Conducted by Steve Duffy, July 2016

Author Photo 1Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and now living in Europe. Her stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. She is a regular columnist for Black Static, has had a short play produced on London’s West End, and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published by Karoshi Books in 2013.


Steve Duffy: So first of all, congratulations on the Shirley Jackson award!

Lynda E. Rucker: Thank you! Congratulations on yours as well! I was really surprised to win.

SD: Thank you! I wasn’t at all surprised that you won. Will the winning story be appearing in the new collection?

LER: Not in this one, no: these are all stories that were published around 2012-2013, plus two new unpublished stories.

SD: (Studies table of contents) Ah, there are some great stories here. I see “The Wife’s Lament”, which I remember from Supernatural Tales. Are there, I wonder, a few autobiographical elements in that story, which has for its protagonist a woman from Portland moving to the UK?

LER: Actually, there really aren’t, not in that one! I talk about this more in the story notes, but that one really arose from wanting to build a story around the Old English poem of the same title.

I do often draw on autobiographical elements in the fiction that I write, but I think by the time it is shaped into a story, it is often unrecognisable from what it once was. Often it’s a matter of taking many different bits and pieces and putting them together: like almost anyone who’s spent a lot of time in other countries, I’ve had the feeling of culture shock and homesickness, but rarely in the specific ways or over the specific things my characters do. (In fact, people often think my characters have terrible times in certain locations because I hated those places myself, which is just not the case at all.) And I tend to write about places I’ve been, so, for example, most of my characters are, like me, either from the American South or the Pacific Northwest.

Another element of using autobiography in fiction is exaggeration. So, for example, I think it’s a very common experience, when you’re as young as Penny, the protagonist in this story, to get caught up in an unrealistic infatuation with someone – whether it’s a real relationship, an unrequited crush or even a celebrity obsession – in which you build them up in your head and imagine that by osmosis you will become someone else as well. In a way it’s kind of part of the process of finding your identity. For many young women, as well, there can be a kind of fascination with older men as Ian is in this story – a sense that their interest in you somehow empowers you, but that can also quickly turn to insecurity in an actual relationship because, well, you’re still just barely done being a kid, you haven’t had time to accomplish anything particularly exciting or to really become who you are going to be. So there were a lot of dynamics I wanted to exaggerate and write about in that story, but I was drawing more on broad and generic experiences than anything particularly concrete – there are other stories in the book that are more specifically autobiographical.

You'll Know When You Get ThereIt only occurs to me just now, as I’m answering this question, that in a way this story has a lot of parallels to the book Rebecca, which is one of my favourites, in that a naive young woman is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a much older and more sophisticated man who may or may not be a sinister figure. Really, though, the genesis of this story is embedded in my translation of the poem itself, which people will have to buy the book to read more about in the story notes!

SD: Quite right! I’m always really pleased when a writer includes story notes. The vibe I get from that story, and from all of yours, I think, is bound up with this wonderful combination of characterisation and sense of place. Both have a reality about them, which I think really helps to “sell” the story, in the sense of making it work for the reader. The feeling of real people, in real situations, and then the fantastic or uncanny element working its way through . . .

LER: Yes! It’s what I love best in fiction, really, is reading about real people in well-grounded settings. Last year, Gary Fry wrote a really insightful review of my first collection on his blog that opened with this line: “My overriding impression after reading Lynda Rucker’s first collection of short stories is that of a writer who loves both horror fiction and mainstream literature.” He’s absolutely right, and I think it’s one of the elements that makes horror fiction such a strange, hybrid beast. It’s often lumped in with science fiction and fantasy – and I do think it belongs there, in part; I love and feel a part of those genres and it’s why I get very angry when I hear people moan about things along the lines of “What are all these icky horror people doing mucking up our nice fantasy conventions/awards” (sentiments I’ve heard more than once expressed regarding both the World Fantasy convention and awards and the British Fantasy Convention and BFAs, to name names).

SD: “Ugh! I simply wouldn’t have them in the house, dear!”

LER: However, I also think horror fiction has equally powerful roots in mainstream fiction as well, and I consistently find that many horror writers, and generally the ones I consider the best, often cite at least as many mainstream influences as straight-up “genre” ones. Nina Allan wrote a terrific piece on her blog several years ago called “The Trouble With Horror”, and in part, it’s about how in order for horror stories to work, they must be powerful stories first and foremost. It’s a wonderful article that I return to periodically and agree with completely.

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Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker