I’ve been talking about some talented and exciting authors both here and over at This Is Horror lately, authors of the weird and the strange who are doing their own thing and doing it exceedingly well. For a long time it seemed we had something of a shortage–with a few notable exceptions–and, while it’s been easy to find great short fiction, it’s been difficult to find unique, fresh voices and ideas in short fiction. But recently that trend has been changing, with publishers like Grey Matter Press, Cemetery Dance, Word Horde, and others publishing anthologies and collections of some of the best short fiction I’ve seen since Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD. One such collection is the new one by Daniel Braum, THE NIGHT MARCHERS. I reviewed that brilliant book over at This Is Horror so go read that, or better yet, go buy the book. I was recently discussing that book and strange fiction in general with Daniel and was delighted to note that he had some unique and intriguing insights into the genre, so I asked him if he would write a guest essay for us.
Night Time Logic by Daniel Braum
Let’s begin with a question.
What explanation could there be for a person who could survive multiple stabbings from a sword unscathed?
Think about it. And hold your answers in the back of your mind as you read this post.
Here’s a second question.
What is a strange tale?
My answers to both of the questions are I don’t know. And I’m not sure.
Hold these thoughts for a bit. It is a beautiful New York summer morning as I write this. I’m in a bit of shade from the nice sun. The bird chirps are masking my worries. The sprinkler is going. I have a novel in progress I’m anxious to work on today and a wonderful pile of dark fiction stories to review. I’ve got this post to write yet I am distracted by my yearning for pancakes. I can handle this. Yet my attempts to summon them, using only my mind have been failing. I’m told of some strange alchemy one of my author pals calls a “recipe” but these are the days of science and reason and such tales of spinning culinary gold out of grocery store staples is just too farfetched for even me to believe.
Thanks for inviting me to do this guest post, Shane. And happy blog birthday to you. It has been a great year for short fiction. I’m very excited to be a small part of it with my first collection of short stories The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, released in eBook from Cemetery Dance and in trade edition from Grey Matter Press. I’m proud of my stories and I’ve always believed in them but as we were messaging about recently, Shane, I never quite knew just where they fit in. I’ve been writing with the intent to publish for a decade and a half. It has only been recently that I feel I have found a context for some of my work, the stories and kinds of stories that appear in the Night Marchers. You’ve asked me to talk about horror and short fiction in this guest post. My caveat is I’m far from an expert. All I have to offer is some insight into my writing journey. I’m grateful to share a glimpses into my exploration, my questions and my perceptions on genre. I’m one guy. One reader. One writer. One who is grateful to be a small part of an exciting time in fiction. With that said, let’s go!
A beginning point is to mention that as a reader and writer I’m not terribly concerned with genre labels or labels at all. Well maybe just two. Fiction and non-fiction. As a kid I went for the fiction in my local library. Why? Because in fiction anything could happen. That was the only “rule”. The only distinction. Be it rocket ships, magic, or ghosts or adventures with none of these things, fiction was stories that were not bound by truth. Or the rules, or so called rules, of this world. Why I think I’ve found my way to horror is that I’ve found that horror, or at least horror today as I know it, seems to run by this same anything can happen spirit. Yes, I know there are divisions and subdivisions and labels and genres and sub-genres all with their expectations and stereotypes, I’ll leave explorations of these categories for people much smarter and more well-read than myself. What excites me about horror today is that editors, publishers, and readers seem to be very willing to go anywhere in a story. At its widest and most expansive definition horror in my opinion can be “anything” so long as it is dark, or remotely dark. If this darkness is in space or with robots or time travel, (gross oversimplifications of science fiction as a genre or category) , horror will still “take it” and accept it as horror. If this darkness appears in a story with magic, swords and sorcery, urban or historical witchcraft (again my gross oversimplifications of the fantasy genre), horror will take it too. I’ve found that horror embraces all the hard to classify, cross-genre, genre-bending, interstitial work out there. All the weird fiction and strange tales. Horror accepts these stories as its own too. This is very exciting to me. This is as close to that no rules, just a party of imagination, I experienced as a kid set loose in my library as I’ve come. Thus horror feels like home. Horror and the wide net it encompasses is the fiction I’m excited to read. As I sit here and write this I’ll try to zero in on the stuff I’m excited about and have been excited about. I’ll try to close in on why I might call these stories, or kinds of stories, strange tales.
I think this is the place in this post where I have to proclaim Spoiler Warnings. There is a good chance I’m going to spoil elements of the short stories The Swords by Robert Aickman. Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link. And the movies The Neon Demon and It Follows.
Let’s start with Robert Aickman. There is so much to say about Robert Aickman and the term ‘strange tales’ he coined for his stories. I’d like to focus on one story in particular; The Swords. I mention the Swords because it was my gateway to Robert Aickman and to weird fiction. I was lucky enough to attend a panel at World Fantasy Convention in 2014 moderated by Simon Strantzas. He and Peter Straub, and Chleasea Quinn Yarbo and others were discussing Aickman and his work. I had never read him before and the conversation had me so intrigued. Peter Straub mentioned many reasons why he loved Aickman’s work. He also cited those same reasons as to why one his notable friends and collaborators disliked Aickman. If you have not yet read any Aickman his stories are about people’s encounters with the supernatural. But Aickman’s supernatural elements are not ghosts or goblins. In fact they rarely are anything explained.
On the panel Peter set forth a theory or formula as to how an Aickman story works. I’m going by memory here so apologies to Peter or anyone if I miss a nuance or get this wrong or mis-quote him in anyway. But as I remember it Peter said he usually find three elements in play in an Aickman story:
- A story grounded in prose a sense of place and voice. Aickman’s narrators were usually disaffected, longing British Men.
- Then we have some sort of what Straub calls a coincidence. Some sort of action or occurrence that if handled by a lesser author, or in less grounded prose you would just throw your hands up and say, no way. Not real.
- Then we have a supernatural element. A supernatural encounter. And they are rarely, if ever explained.
If you can seeek out and read a copy of the Swords now. In any event let’s talk about it.
*** SDK: ‘The Swords’ can be found in Robert Aickman’s collection COLD HAND IN MINE.***
As to Straub’s point one:
The narrator in the Swords is a young British man. The point of view, the voice, the setting are all incredibly well grounded and well presented. Reading this story the reader believes the character and where he is both in place and in history. The narrator in the swords comes across something that is part side show, part sex show. In a carnival tent, a young woman (wearing green powder) is pierced by with swords by men watching in the audience. In the beginning of the story the narrator experiences this then leaves the scene of this event.
As to point two: The coincidence.
The narrator returns to the carnival place to find the woman and her carnival barker like handler, (who he calls the seaman or showman), gone. Then this happens:
“…and all the while mulling over and around what had happened to me, until the time came for dinner. I had planned to eat in the café where I had eaten the night before, but I found myself in a different part of the city, which, of course I didn’t know at all, and, feeling rather faint and queer fell instead into the first place there was.
And there, in the middle of the floor, believe it or not, sitting at a Formica-topped table, was my girl with the green powder, and, beside her, the Seaman or showman, looking like a run-down boxer.”
So the coincidence is that he runs into these two people again. This coincidence and coincidences like it are what the panel pointed out could be both hallmarks of Aickman stories and elements handled in the hands of lesser writers or any writer other than Aickman that would cause a story to fail, that would cause a reader to stop suspension of disbelief.
But then we have point three. The supernatural element. The coincidence is not the supernatural element. In The Swords the green-powder woman not only survives the swords side show, something else very unusual happens to her. Our narrator has a private date, a “session” with the woman. In the course of this session the woman loses her arm. Then she reattaches it and flees. No explanation as to what has occurred is given. Aickman only gives us this, as he follows her and runs into the Seaman. And pays the man for his session with the woman.
“…I noticed that even his trousers seemed to be seaman’s trousers, now that I could see them close to, with him standing just in front of me. ‘Everything all right then?’
“I think so,” I said again. I was taking care not to commit myself too far in any direction I could think of.
I saw that now he was looking at me, his small eyes deep-sunk.
At that exact moment, there was a wild shriek from one of the floors below. It was about the loudest human cry I had heard until then, even in one of those lodgings.
But the man took no notice.
‘All right then,” he said.
For some reason, he hesitated a moment, then he held out his hand. I took it. He was very strong, but there was nothing else remarkable about his hand.
“We’ll meet again,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Then he turned away and pressed the black time switch for the staircase light. I did not stop to watch him go. I was sick and freezing.
And so far, despite what he said, our paths have not recrossed.
Their story ends there.
So let’s revisit the question I began with. How can a woman survive being stabbed by a sword? How can a woman lose and arm and reattach it. You all are very smart and creative. You could come up with dozens of creative and plausible things. So not only do I say I don’t know. I submit to you that it doesn’t matter.
It is this lack of knowing. This intentional lack of an answer that Aickman was after. And a large part of what give his stories their punch.
What he delivers this way is a sense that emotion and consequence for our narrator. And hopefully us the reader.
Had Aickman presented the woman as a robot the story could veer toward science fiction. Had he presented the woman as using magic the story could come across as fantasy. Had he presented the woman as a vampire or other creature perhaps the story reads as horror. But he does none of these things. The story comes across as supernatural. Something akin to science fiction, fantasy, and or horror. But something different.
Is this a strange tale?
It is certainly a Robert Aickman strange tale.
What did Robert Aickman do?
After reading the swords I thought a lot about the story. And how it was operating. And why it appealed to me so much.
The answer, for me, is Night Time Logic.
Night Time Logic is a term coined by author Howard Waldrop.
There is a great article out there on the Wall Street Journal where author Kelly Link speaks about this. Shane, or any reader out there, maybe you can track down this article? It appears to now be behind a pay wall.
***SDK: I did not find the article Daniel Referred to above but I did find this link to an interview on Chicago Review of Books in which Link discusses “Night Time Logic,” among other things.***
Even if we do come up with the link I’d like to talk a bit about Night Time Logic. It is never optimal to define something by explaining what it is not but I’m doing so anyway.
Daytime logic. Daytime logic is the kind of logic that operates with your conscious mind. The rules of the supernatural elements in a story are known. And clearly defined. For example day time logic is Vampires. Vampires operate in known way. Anything with clear and known rules are operating with “daytime” logic.
Night Time Logic is about what is felt. It is about the unconscious mind. I’m tempted to say Night Time Logic is about “no rules” but this is not the case. Night Time Logic is about supernatural things operating by rules that are not given. That are not known or fully known. What is happening is not explicit. You don’t “get” the rules in your brain or your conscious thoughts.
You feel things.
In your gut.
In your heart.
In Aickman’s the swords something is happening. We get the sense the Seaman knows what is going on. But we aren’t privy to it. We are privy to the emotion. To the sense that something is happening.
Author Tim Powers has spoken about something akin to this. I don’t believe he is speaking directly about Night Time Logic but he sums it up quite well. Back in 2004 he gave a Key Note or Guest of Honor speech at I think what was the ARISIA convention or perhaps it was Boskone. I once thought it could be found online but I can’t seem to find the link.
As I recall, he was talking about chickens who had been raised for generations indoors. Generation after generation of these chickens were raised without ever seeing the sun. Without ever seeing a predator. One day some researchers did an experiment. They ran some sort of a zip line along the ceiling of the giant chicken coop warehouse and attached the shape of a Chicken Hawk onto it. They moved the fake chicken hawk along the ceiling and watched as the chickens who had never seen a predator react in fear. The point was not about genetic memory. The point was that an author’s job is to operate as that “fake chicken hawk” does. To elicit real emotions and responses from readers with the so called cardboard cut outs of our words.
This is Night Time Logic to me.
If done right the emotion is delivered. The emotion is felt.
Readers will react and respond to something in their guts. Not in their brains.
Can they tell you why? Maybe. Perhaps. What is key is not knowing about the lady with the swords. It is feeling it. Being affected by it.
Here is a link to my story The Moon and The Mesa. The story appears in the Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales collection. This is a free audio version recorded by Psuedopod the horror podcast site. I hope you will take a listen to it.
The supernatural element in the story, if it is a supernatural element at all, I believe works on Night Time Logic. Was it effective for you? Why? Several stories in the Night Marhers collection operate this way. I hope you will give them a read.
If you spend any time around me talking about fiction. Night Time Logic and Kelly Link are topics that are sure to come up. I recently tried explaining Kelly Link’s fiction to a pal who had not yet read Kelly’s stories. And without thinking much about it I told him that some of Kelly’s stories operate like Aickman’s stories work on Night Time Logic. This may or may not be true. This may or may not be intentional. But the story I had in mind is one of my favorite Kelly Link stories. It is called is Some Zombie Contingency Plans. Despite the name. It is not really about Zombies.
The podcast site Podcastle has recorded a wonderful free version of the story. I recommend listening to it here. It is one of my favorite stories.
Kelly begins the story by directly addressing the reader, telling us what the story is about:
“This is a story about being lost in the woods.
This guy Soap is at a party out in the suburbs. The thing you need to know about Soap is that he keeps a small framed oil painting in the trunk of his car. The painting is about the size of a paperback novel. Wherever Soap goes, this oil painting goes with him. But he leaves the painting in the trunk of his car, because you don’t walk around a party carrying a painting. People will think you are weird.”
She then goes on to make us forget about what the story is about. How? With an incredibly convincing voice of both Soap and a young girl named Carly and her very clever and humorous narrative voice. The similarity between Kelly Link and Robert Aickman and Tim Powers to me is that they all ground us in the voice of the characters and the specificity of the setting. Their very grounded very believable voices and settings allow for a less defined speculative element, in my opinion. To me this kind of storytelling is a delight.
Here is a bit of the setting and voice from some Zombie Contingency Plans:
“A girl wanders into the kitchen. She’s black and her hair goes up and up and on top are those sturdy, springy curls like little waves. Toe to top of her architectural haircut she’s as tall as Soap. She has eyes the color of iceberg lettuce. There’s a heart-shaped rhinestone under one green eye. The rhinestone winks at Soap like it knows him. She’s gorgeous, but Soap knows better than to fool around with girls who aren’t out of high school yet, maybe. “What are you doing,” she says.
“Cooking a steak,” Soap says. “Want one?”
“No,” she says. “I already ate.”
She sits up on the counter beside the sink and swings her legs. She’s wearing a bikini top, pink shorts, and no shoes. “Who are you,” she says.
“Will,” Soap says, although Will is not his name. Soap isn’t his real name, either.
“I’m Carly,” she says. “You want a beer?”
“There’s beer in the fridge,” Will says, and Carly says, “I know there is.”
Will opens and closes drawers and cabinet doors until he’s found a plate, a fork, and a knife, and garlic salt. He takes his steak out of the oven.
“You go to State?” Carly says. She pops off the beer top against the lip of the kitchen counter and Will knows she’s showing off.
“No,” Will says. He sits down at the kitchen table and cuts off a piece of steak. He’s been lonely ever since he and his friend Mike got out of prison and Mike went out to Seattle. It’s nice to sit in a kitchen and talk to a girl.”
On the surface the story is a story, about a con just released from prison with a very young girl and her even younger brother at a house party. There is a lot of natural tension and conflict built into the scenario. Link does her job in presenting a setting and situation that feels so real you or I or any of us could have attended. But, like she said in the first line the story is ultimately about is being lost in the woods. What does that mean? What does being lost in the woods mean?
Soap was in prison for stealing a painting from a Museum heist. Only the painting was never at the Museum in the first place. So sneaking up on us this is a story about…. A man who is mad? Or maybe a magic painting? Or maybe something else entirely. As the story nears its end we realize that despite the story not seeming like it is a supernatural story at all that something magical, something supernatural might be at play here. Like in Aickman’s work, what exactly this is, is not explained. But certainly it is felt and the story delivers great emotion and perhaps even something akin to the sense of life being lost in the woods using Night Time Logic.
Aickman and Link write stories that are hard to classify. Stories that transcend the categories they sometimes find themselves in.
These stories and these kinds of stories are what excite me. There are so many wonderful examples of this. From Jeffrey Ford and his story A Night In the Tropics to a host of writers working today. You asked me about the state of horror. Well honestly I don’t know. But from my vantage it looks very exciting.
Just look at programs like the Outer Dark and this is horror to see great examples of just how exciting a time it is. Thanks to a demand by readers and a willingness by publishers to give us fresh voices and exciting perspectives it is a very exciting time. Movies like It Follows and The Neon Demon are bringing and popularizing this kind of fiction on the Silver Screen. Looks like I didn’t spoil these movies. But go spoil yourself and give them a watch. Let me know if they work for you.
With that, I’ll wrap it up Shane. I could go on all day. And I hope to do this again. Happy blog birthday. See you again next year for birthday number two. Wishing you a great year full of dark and fantastic fiction. What kind? I’m not sure. And I don’t care. So long as it is dark and delivers. Wish me luck trying to make pancakes appear.
Daniel Braum. Author of the Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales.