John Langan is well on his way to becoming a contemporary horror legend. Not only are his ideas brilliant, but the style and authority with which he crafts his fiction makes his work required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the genre. His stories have frequently appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies as well as several of the themed anthologies edited by John Joseph Adams and can be found in his two collections, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) and The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013). Whether you’re a fan of monsters, literary analysis, or the weird, you’ll find something to love between the covers of either collection. Langan’s novel House of Windows (2009) is likewise recommended. Co-founder of the Shirley Jackson Awards and an instructor at SUNY New Paltz, Langan is also an accomplished academic.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with the man himself about monsters, family, writing advice, and his host of new projects on the horizon.
ZCP: Your work tends cover a wide range in terms of literary and genre horror. In one story you’ve placed readers in a classroom for a lecture about Poe while in the next you’re speaking with authority about space vampires. What’s it like to call so many corners of the genre home? Do you find your process changes from one story to the next?
JL: My process remains pretty much the same from story to story, which is to say, I try to write about a page a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, until the story’s done. What changes from piece to piece is the narrative voice, which adapts to and shapes the material of the story. Once I can hear the voice of a particular story, usually in an opening line, I’m off and running. If my work covers a lot of ground, then that’s because I see the horror field as a rather large and baggy tent. No doubt, it’s a consequence of growing up during the horror boom of the seventies and eighties, when so many writers were doing so much work that was widely-available, and all manner of reprint and year’s best anthologies were available, too. A book like Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, with its very catholic view of what might be considered a horror narrative, exerted a tremendous influence on my own thoughts on the matter. I see that variety as a fundamental strength of the horror field, a tremendous asset for those of us working in it.
ZCP: What draws you to write about monsters and madness? Did you have any childhood interests that steered you toward the horror genre?
JL: I write what I do because I love it, because it speaks to me and energizes me in a way that cuts right to the heart of who I am. I’ve always loved monsters: initially, the big ones, Godzilla, especially, and Gamera and Gorgo (who should have starred in a series of films of her own–what a missed opportunity!), and then the human-sized ones, the vampires and the werewolves, the gill-men and the zombies. I love their gaudiness; I love the way they embody what I see as one of the horror narrative’s central concerns, the irruption of the irrational into our daily experience. I expect my affection for them grows out of a number of different childhood passions: for dinosaurs, for comic books, for the mythology of the Greeks and the Vikings.
As for madness, I suppose it’s the complement to the monsters. If they represent that incursion of the irrational as an external force, then madness figures it as internal, a rupturing of the self by the self. I imagine my interest in it grows out of early exposure to the works of Poe, as well as to the history of Jack the Ripper and what was during my childhood the contemporary figure of the Yorkshire Ripper, whose crimes and taunts of the police terrified me, an ocean away. I would guess, too, that as someone who was a literature major in college and graduate school, I’m informed by the interest in madness that permeates so much of the literature of the last few hundred years, from the work of the British and American Romantics to a figure such as Rimbaud, and up through the Moderns and Postmoderns.
ZCP: In past interviews you’ve mentioned working on a second novel with a working title of The Fisherman. How is that progressing?
JL: I’m pleased to say that I finished work on The Fisherman at the end of 2013, and currently, my agent is shopping the book around. It’s the story of a pair of fishing buddies who venture to a haunted stream, wrapped around an account of the secret and terrible history of the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York. Fingers, obviously, crossed.
ZCP: You also have a third short story collection in the works, correct? You’ve said you view The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies as a continuation of your first collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. Will the new collection share traits with the first two?
JL: Absolutely: there will be the same mix of monsters and narrative approaches, anchored by an original, lengthy novella. If there is a difference, it’s that the stories in this book all cohere around the idea of betrayal. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part; it was more a matter of, when I was looking at the stories that would go into the third collection, I realized that every last one of them revolved around some notion of betrayal. This, in turn, affected my decision about the new piece I wanted to include. I haven’t started showing this book to publishers, yet; I’d like to have the novel settled, first. But I would imagine it will appear in either 2015 or 2016, with a fourth collection appearing two to three years after that, and a fifth another couple of years on from that, the Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.
ZCP: In 2011 Prime Books released Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters, which you co-edited with Paul Tremblay. Do you two have any other shared projects on the horizon?
JL: Paul and I have a few paragraphs of a story we’ve been planning to co-write for something like five or six years, now. Eventually, we’ll get to it. Paul’s an outstanding writer; his 2010 collection, In the Mean Time, is essential reading. Our other ongoing project is the Shirley Jackson Awards, of which we’re founding members. With JoAnn Cox, Paul is responsible for the smooth running of the whole shebang; I show up for the awards and look thoughtful.
ZCP: The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One, which is being edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly, is slated for release in August and contains your story “Bor Urus.” You’ve been a supporter of weird fiction for a long time. What’s it like to be included in the first wave of this new anthology? Do you think weird fiction may get more of the attention it deserves?
JL: I’m delighted that my story is appearing in the anthology, tucked in amidst truly stellar company. Of course, it’s always nice to have your work recognized, and for it to be in such a high-profile venue as this is the proverbial icing on the cake. Between the VanderMeers’ recent anthology, The Weird, and now this, it does seem as if the weird is on the cultural radar. Certainly, it would be nice for a writer such as Michael Cisco, who for a decade and a half has been writing brilliant fiction that exemplifies much of what I understand the weird to be about, to receive the recognition he so richly deserves.
ZCP: You’ve had a close friendship with Laird Barron for some time now. Any chance we’ll see you two team up as a dynamic duo to frighten readers?
JL: Laird is one of my favorite people, and one of the contemporary writers who most makes me throw up my hands and shout, “How did he do that?” We’ve been kicking around ideas for years, now; I think the first one centered on Godzilla vs. Cthulhu. (I actually wrote a couple of hundred words on it.) It’s something we still plan to do, once our plates become a little less full. Our latest plot involves a global pursuit and at least one monster.
ZCP: Aliens or Predators?
ZCP: Earlier this year you set up a new blog. You’ve already put up a list of works and interviews as well as some advice on writing. Any plans for the blog’s future? How would you say your overall use of social media has changed since your career took off?
JL: To put the matter kindly, I’ve tended to under-use the various social media platforms, from Livejournal, to Facebook, to Twitter, to whatever’s looming on the electronic horizon. In part, this has been a result of trying to balance those platforms with a marriage, a family, a day job teaching, and a night job writing. I’ve preferred to devote the majority of my writing time to working on my fiction. And, to be honest, I’m not particularly good at the kind of rapid-fire discourse that flourishes online. Probably as a result of my academic training, I prefer to take a longer time working through whatever subject or issue is in front of me, by the end of which, the online community will have moved on to the next thing. I used to feel worse about this, especially when I considered those writers who were all over the place on the web. More recently, I’ve noticed a) how many of those same writers haven’t written much except for their online commentary and b) how many of them will declare their need to go offline in order to complete their next work. This said, I have established a new blog. I wanted a single place where I could link to what I’ve published online, which turned out to be more than I’d realized. I imagine I’ll continue to use it to that end, and also try to employ it to somewhat the same end as my Facebook account, which is to say, as a place to bring together things I think are interesting and cool.
ZCP: What is one piece of bad writing advice you think gets passed around too often? What good piece of advice doesn’t get passed around enough?
JL: As a fan of the adverb, I’m annoyed at their continuing denigration. I understand the purpose of telling beginning writers to do without them, as I understand the reason why the whole “slaughter your darlings” adage is passed on to them. Both strike me as reductive and constrictive. My feeling is, if a piece of writing advice helps you to write more, then take it to heart. If it stops you from writing, then ditch it.
As for good advice: read. And do what you love. If you don’t love what you’re doing, then why do it?
ZCP: You currently teach as an adjunct instructor at SUNY New Paltz. Would you ever consider teaching in an MFA program?
JL: Depending on the program, sure. The biggest challenge to me doing so is location and duration. My family and I are pretty settled where we are, now–my wife has tenure; my younger son’s in middle school–which means I would need to teach either someplace locally, or someplace with a low-residency program. Of course, given that the low-res programs tend to be more genre-friendly, that might not be such a stretch.
ZCP: You’ve mentioned your family a few times now. How does being a husband and father inform your writing? Do you find bits of that portion of your life slipping into your work, or do the two remain relatively separate?
JL: I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without my wife and sons. When my wife, Fiona, and I first started seeing one another, she was completing her dissertation on the fiction of Jack Kerouac (not so much On the Road as Dr. Sax and Visions of Cody). We talked about her work on Kerouac a lot, especially his use of popular culture. Through those conversations, Fiona helped me to realize that popular cultural forms such as horror fiction were as capable of serious literary expression as anything, which had been something of an anxiety of mine during my twenties. Then, when we first started living together, Fiona and I watched reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after which, we would discuss the episodes. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who understands narrative in so fundamental a way as my wife; discussing Buffy (and later Angel) with her was like a master class in the dynamics of narrative. Once I returned to writing horror, and before our son was born, I would read whatever story I was working on to her and she would critique it–continuing, I suppose, my education.
More generally speaking, being a father to both my sons has made my life richer than I would have dreamed possible. With my sons in my life, even the bad times are better than they would have been, otherwise. There’s definitely been a bleed-over from my life to my fiction, from my older son asking me to write stories about certain monsters, to my wife and younger son appearing in not-too-subtle disguise in a couple of stories and my first novel.
ZCP: In the past you’ve given shout outs to writers. Is there anyone out there readers should keep an eye on who maybe doesn’t have the readership they should?
JL: There is no shortage of writers doing great work, right now. I mentioned Michael Cisco above as someone who’s been on the cutting edge for years and has yet to receive what I consider his due. I’m sure your readers are aware of Laird Barron and Sarah Langan (who is, incidentally, no relation); if they’re not, however, then I would heartily recommend all of Laird and Sarah’s fiction, starting with The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and The Keeper, respectively. The last few years have seen a number of very strong debut collections; I’d call attention to Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire and Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters as well worth your readers’ time and attention. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading new collections from Scott Nicolay and Damien Angelica Walters. Scott’s Ana Kai Tangata is out, now; I believe Damien’s Sing Me Your Scars and Other Stories will be released in the fall. As they say, run, don’t walk, to get them.
ZCP: Thanks so much for taking the time. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing? You have the floor.
JL: Thank you for inviting me to speak with you, and for asking such interesting questions. The only thing I’d like to add is a thank you to the people who have read and who continue to read my fiction. What success I’ve had, I owe to my readers, and I’m grateful for them.