Today’s guest blog is by British Fantasy Award winner Steve Rasnic Tem, an author I’ve been reading since I encountered (and was blown away by) his story “Mirror Man” in Stephen Jones’ The Giant Book of Terror in my teens. His more subdued, subtle style of horror made him a staple of Charles L. Grant anthologies, and since then he has published over 300 short stories, a handful of collections, among them the superlative City Fishing, and The Far Side of the Lake; the novellas Among the Living, and the incredible, multiple award-winning, semi-autobiographical mediation on life, love, and loss, The Man on the Ceiling (with Melanie Tem), and four novels, Excavation, Daughters (with Melanie Tem), The Book of Days, and the much anticipated, recently released opus, Deadfall Hotel, a haunted house story lavishly produced by Centipede Press and replete with illustrations that have already drawn comparisons to the work of Edward Gorey.
Here Steve talks a bit about that book and about the problem he perceives with much of modern horror…
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WHISTLING PAST GRAVEYARDS
Whistling past graveyards: that’s what we do, those of us who write tales of horror. It’s a reminder that yes indeed, there’s a graveyard there, but at the same time we offer an entertaining story about the fear, which might be seen as a way of dealing with the undeniable facts of mortality.
But it’s a delicate balance, and a contradictory sort of exercise, because this old idiom also suggests a kind of false optimism. You’re playing around, whistling, despite the fact that there are important issues that need to be attended to. Whistle too loudly, and you might forget the graveyard is even there. Sometimes when I read horror, or watch horror films, I’m not convinced that the elaborately imagined “horrors” reflect the true fears/anxieties of anyone, not even of the writer who created the piece. Some horror entertainment seems so far removed from the issues which really trouble us they seem to be encouraging us to check out completely, to ignore the difficult realities right in front of us, and to ignore those disturbing events in our dreams. Some think that’s a positive thing, and sometimes it is. We all could use a vacation.
But that doesn’t make the deadline go away.
I worked on my most recent novel, Deadfall Hotel (hardback from Centipede Press, paperback to come from Solaris next May) for over 20 years. Not continuously, mind you, I’m not that slow, but off and on, revisiting the story regularly as I acquired new insights. I’m glad I finished it. I’m likely to leave other things unfinished when I go. But at least not this one.
The dark obsessions of a culture become like a stream in the imagination, one that any of us can dip into from time to time, and interpret as we will. Sometimes that stream slows, and pools, and at one of those locations I posit that the Deadfall Hotel has been built. It’s a remote establishment where the guests are not quite like you and me, where nightmares seek a place of sanctuary.
The hotel takes its name from the grove. Those who stay there often complain of the trees in their dreams – long, snake-like, involved limbs they imagine must mirror the tree’s root system. Limbs you feel compelled to follow, in and out of shadowed hollows where branches disappear, where nests, newly inhabited or ancient and abandoned, are hidden. In parts of these trees the branches are so interlocked – within individual trees and among members of a group – that the strongest wind will not free them.
Night comes early, the hotel’s architecture is improbable, and you quickly become disoriented if you are not of the right frame of mind, or species.
When I began Deadfall Hotel I was pretty sure it would be the last time I would use most of the traditional horror tropes (the vampire, the werewolf, the haunted house) in my fiction. At times I even thought this book would be my farewell to horror. Even back in the eighties when I started this project these figures seemed pretty exhausted of any immediate significance for the contemporary reader. And they were emblematic of the problem I mentioned earlier—they seemed all too much whistle, and not enough graveyard. But as I visited each one of them, and experienced the hunger, and the anger, the frenzy, and the loneliness they represented, I began to believe again in their validity. I knew I would use them again in stories, but hopefully with some selectivity. My story “Grandfather Wolf” in John Skipp’s Werewolves and Shapeshifters anthology is a recent example.
So now this book is out, and it’s Halloween season, and the stores are full of their orange and black decorations and costume displays. And again I’m thinking about whistling past graveyards. People are worried about jobs, and terrorists, and health care, and if they’re going to be able to afford their retirement, and if they’re going to be well enough to enjoy their retirement, and whether people of different beliefs are ever going to be able to work together anymore, and if there is any real safety, anywhere. So there’s also a lot of vigorous whistling happening right now.
In Deadfall Hotel there are a number of metaphors for horror fiction. There’s the hotel itself, of course, and the old-fashioned entertainment of the Phantasmagoria, and the funhouse, with its house of mirrors inside. Halloween is very much the funhouse, and some people (and ironically, my viewpoint character Richard is one of them) have no patience for it, or creepy anything, or “this idea that terror constituted entertainment.” But he remembers what his wife (dead before the novel begins) used to tell him, “how important it was sometimes not to look away.”
And I think about how ironic it is that sometimes creating and reading some horror fiction can actually become an act of looking away. In Deadfall I tried to use the traditional tropes of horror fiction in a manner that did not look away. It’s up to others to decide if I succeeded or not.
– Steve Tem, October 2011
- Centipede Press Announces DEADFALL HOTEL by Steve Rasnic Tem. (miskatonicbooks.wordpress.com)