Interview with John Langan
That Occulted Part of Ourselves
Conducted by Matt Cardin in July 2010 for Demon Muse
Republished March 2014 at The Teeming Brain
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was first published on July 26, 2010, at the website Demon Muse (which is now shut down and basically incorporated into The Teeming Brain). This accounts for its dominant focus on the subject of inspiration and authorial creativity. I hadn’t met John in person at the time this conversation took place, but several months later we met, conversed, and even served together on a panel titled “Horror in the Academy” at the 2011 World Horror Convention in Austin. In addition to the two books discussed in this interview, John has published a third one since then, 2013’s The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, which you are well advised to seek out. More recently he was given a shout-out by Nic Pizzolatto, writer and showrunner of HBO’s True Detective, who recommended John as one of the best contemporary authors of weird fiction. – MC
I’m almost inclined to preface the following conversation with a blatantly hyperbolic claim, to wit: If you haven’t heard of John Langan, then you soon will. That’s how strongly I feel about the quality and importance of the man’s writing. And although it’s true that he may, like many horror writers, end up being known not to a general audience but only to those who actively seek out such stories, this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a mainstream breakthrough. Because he’s writing some really stunning stuff with the potential to engage an audience of significant size.
I first heard of John around 2004 or 2005 when a friend, the fantasy and horror artist Jason Van Hollander, directed me to John’s story “On Skua Island,” which had been published in 2001 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I found out somewhere, maybe from Jason, that John is a creative writing teacher at SUNY New Paltz. He also teaches classes in gothic fiction and film. This interested me greatly.
In keeping with my usual mercurial reading habits (dictated by weird inner pressures and impulses that I’ll never manage to map out), I examined the story, found it hugely exciting, and then put off reading it for several years. When I finally did read it, I was positively enraptured by its thoroughly delicious deployment of classic supernatural-horrific literary tropes — all of them used quite consciously — in the service of a really fine and wholly original tale.
This was in early 2009, only a few months after John’s first book, the fiction collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, had been published to an enthusiastic reception that included a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The book consists of five stories that demonstrate more of the same brilliance the author had demonstrated in “On Skua Island,” which is included in its contents. I read it and was again enraptured.
Then John’s first novel, House of Windows, came out in late 2009. It was a thoroughly literary exploration of the haunted house theme, as played against the family curse theme, as played out in a parable about the power of language, as played out in the lives of two career academics. In reviewing it for the journal Dead Reckonings, I found myself writing enthusiastic comments like this: “House of Windows is a scarifyingly assured debut. It’s one of those wonderful books where you realize only a few pages in that you can relax into it and trust yourself fully to the author, since he obviously knows what he’s doing.” I also noticed that a host of other critics and reviewers agreed with this assessment.
And the story of John’s literary ascent continues: his work has now been featured in editor Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2, and editor Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. He has served as a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards. Most interesting of all — to a person like me, at least — he’s currently working on a Ph.D. through the CUNY Graduate Center, with his dissertation to be titled Lovecraft’s Progeny. It will offer “a consideration of Lovecraft’s influence on Fritz Leiber, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, and Caitlin Kiernan.”
Somewhere along the way in my discovery of John and his work, I became personally acquainted with him through the Internet, and this is what finally led to my inviting him to sit down here in virtual space for an interview. Well, that plus the fact that his stories were resonating all over the place with some of the major themes that I’ve pursued in my own work, both fiction and nonfiction: the mystery of creative inspiration, the experience of being dominated by autonomous psychic forces, and so on. I wanted to ask John about the origin of these strands in his work, and about his interesting fusion of academic themes with supernatural ones, and about the implications of these things not only for his own literary creative life but for the creative lives of anybody else who might benefit from hearing what he’s learned.
He was most accommodating in his replies, as you can now read for yourself.
MATT CARDIN: Let’s jump right into the heart of the matter, John. You’ve begun to establish an interesting new authorial niche for yourself by writing fiction that combines supernatural horror with academia. Explicitly academic characters, settings, situations, and/or conversations frequently show up in your stories, not just as window dressing but as something central to the horrific supernatural goings on. This is especially true of House of Windows, with its professorial protagonists, SUNY settings, and heady literary and philosophical discussions all interwoven in a tale of hell realms, alternate dimensions, quasi-Lovecraftian monstrous entities, supernatural curses, and one whale of a haunted house. To put the question bluntly, what’s up with this? Why are you taking this approach? Obviously, the answer is that you’re personally interested and invested in both areas, supernatural horror and the academic world. But what I’m asking is how come? What’s the magnetic attraction of these things for you, and how or why do you think they intersect so deeply in your writer’s sensibility?
JOHN LANGAN: It’s been my ambition to work in the vein of weird fiction that you’ve referred to elsewhere as “supernatural realism,” which is to say, narrative in which the tradition of mimetic naturalism is brought together with the tradition of supernatural horror. It’s the kind of fiction I grew up reading in the nineteen eighties with the stories and novels of Stephen King, Peter Straub, T.E.D. Klein, Charles Grant, Karl Edward Wagner, etc. If your interest is in pursuing this variety of weird fiction, then it’s a good idea to invent from what you know (thank you, Ernest Hemingway), which for me means academia. Since I first went to college at age eighteen, higher education has been part of my life to a greater or lesser degree. It’s how I met my wife, as well as many of my oldest and dearest friends; it’s how I’ve earned what passes for my living for about a decade. With so much raw material at my disposal, it would be silly to pass it up.
That said, of course there’s more to my decision than mere proximity. There’s a long association between academia and the weird tale, going back at least to that original bad professor, Faust, and running up through Victor Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing, and the assorted faculty of Miskatonic University who appear in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. As a writer who’s interested in mining the traditions of the weird tale, how can I resist the traditions that converge with my own real-life experience?
Beyond such a fortunate coincidence, however, the appearance of academic characters in weird narratives seems to me to serve a couple of ends. There’s the obvious device of furthering the plot in terms of exposition of crucial information. There’s also the less obvious — I’d almost call it a symptom of the weird narrative’s vexed relationship to knowledge. As I see it, weird fiction is shot through with a deep ambivalence about human knowledge, which may well encode a kind of skepticism towards the Enlightenment’s general faith in rationality. After all, the figures of learning in these narratives are just as likely to unleash the supernatural threat as they are to contain or expel it. The anxiety over epistemology that lies at the heart of what may be my favorite Lovecraft story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is something that the academy has been struggling with for the better part of the last four or five decades, in the wake of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. So it’s another level of convergence that I’m only too happy to exploit.
MC: Does this “vexed relationship to knowledge” play any part in your experience of birthing a fictional story? What’s the genesis of a story or novel like for you? How does the initial idea first intimate itself to you, and how do you then elaborate it and bring it to fruition? You’ve actually gone a long way toward answering these questions with the extremely generous and detailed story notes that you provided at the end of your Mr. Gaunt collection, but I’m wondering if you can maybe abstract something general to explain how you personally tend to experience the literary creative process.
JL: For some years, now, I’ve been describing the process by which a story presents itself to me in terms of an experiment from my high-school chemistry class. In this experiment, you stir sugar into a beaker full of water until the water cannot absorb any more of it. Then, you heat the beaker over a Bunsen burner, as a result of which you learn that, in its heated state, the water can receive still more sugar. Finally, you insert a plastic rod into the supersaturated solution and watch as the sugar crystallizes up its length.
That moment of crystallization is my preferred trope for the way I experience the creative process. A seemingly random bit of information — perhaps an anecdote, perhaps an idea, perhaps a phrase — will cause other details floating in my mind to come together and cohere into the beginnings, sometimes more, of a narrative. This tends to result in a first line bobbing to the surface of my consciousness that, once I write it down, turns out to be attached to several subsequent lines, sometimes as much as a page. I try to aid and abet the beginnings of this process by keeping an open mind, so to speak, remaining aware of details from my life, the lives of those around me, the things I’ve read and seen, that might contribute to a story.
“As I see it, weird fiction is shot through with a deep ambivalence about human knowledge, which may well encode a kind of skepticism towards the Enlightenment’s general faith in rationality.”
What I’m describing, however, is only the beginning. Once I’m inside a story, the writing process itself becomes productive of new sentences, ideas, actions, characters. As I tell my Creative Writing students, “The secret to writing is writing.” While I write, I’m also editing: sometimes during the actual writing process, sometimes during whatever else it is I’m doing during the other parts of the day. Once I’ve reached the end of a story, it’s back through it for a couple of edits, and then, if I have time, I’ll leave it a week or two before returning toot for one more edit. In an ideal situation, I’m sharing my work with my wife as go; I can’t estimate how much I’ve learned about writing from her feedback. That doesn’t happen as much as I’d like, these days, the responsibilities of family and work being what they are for both of us.
MC: I find this all quite interesting, not least because the two pieces of yours that most particularly made me want to interview you are “Laocöon, or The Singularity” and House of Windows. Both of them explicitly highlight the issue of psychic domination by a perceived external source. The protagonists of both stories are obsessed and driven to pursue their respective works. Most pointedly, in “Laocöon” the protag is an artist (and academic) who starts feeling that he’s channeling some sort of divine — or monstrous — force that’s bigger than he is, a force that’s charging his creative work. I suppose I might also call out your story “Tutorial,” which elaborates a similar theme in a distinctly different direction, and in which the protagonist feels that his writing hand driven by a force beyond him. I could also name “Episode Seven: Last Stand against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers,” where the character of Wayne appears to serve as a kind of conduit for a dark and powerful force within his own psyche.
As you know, a primary focus of mind is the muse/daemon/genius model of creativity, the idea that the ancient models of the muse, the genius, and the personal demon can be fruitfully equated with the perceived independence of the unconscious mind from the ego, and that this very understanding is something to be capitalized on and developed for living an integrated, productive, and satisfying creative life. Your description of feeling out the early shape of a story by fishing your unconscious mind for what sticks to a conscious idea really resonates with this.
So, does the repeated appearance of these seemingly independent forces within the psyches of your characters have any crossover value with any of this? Do you personally experience and/or have you reflected on anything like this in your own life as a writer? Basically, what I’m asking is: Does inspiration in the really technical sense of the term have anything to do with how you live and write? Is this perhaps reflected in the aspects of your stories that I’m highlighting? And if so, how do you work it? What’s the fulcrum point between spontaneous inspiration and conscious effort for you?
JL: One of my favorite quotations about human consciousness comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature; in it, Lawrence, arguing with Ben Franklin, asserts that his self is a clearing in a dark forest into which strange gods come and go. I can remember sharing this with a particularly brilliant friend who said that if you could live as if this were true, your life would be remarkable.
I can’t say that I’ve succeeded in living such a life, but I’ve remained convinced of the importance of that occulted part of ourselves; it’s resulted in a continuing layman’s interest in Freud, Lacan, and very recently, James Hillman. In part, this interest has led me to consider the significance of those parts of ourselves we can’t change in determining the way our stories unfold. Speaking about her own first novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor asked if our integrity ever lay in that which we could not do. She answered her own question by saying that she thought sometimes it did. That’s a quotation I had very much in mind while writing House of Windows. I suppose it’s no surprise that a writer of weird fiction should be interested in the recalcitrant aspects of human character, especially when those aspects cause and complicate the drama.
“Having decided to embrace my muse or daimon or fornit — an invention of Stephen King’s that’s stuck with me since I read it — I’ve found that my relationship with her/him/them is best served by regular, (reasonably) disciplined activity on my part.”
As far as the relation of such ideas to my own creativity — or my understanding of my creativity — like many writers drawn to genre materials, I tended to avoid them for fear that they weren’t literary — which was to say, respectable — enough. It was only once I accepted that the kind of writer I was drawn to be was a writer of weird fiction that I was able to move ahead creatively. To quote something Terry Brooks once said to me: As a writer, you have to write what you can write. I can understand how such advice might seem to be a recipe for artistic stagnation, for remaining stuck in your rut, but what I’ve experienced is that, since I decided to find out what weird fiction had to offer me as a writer, its possibilities have continued to expand for me.
However, having decided to embrace my muse or daimon or fornit — an invention of Stephen King’s that’s stuck with me since I read it — I’ve found that my relationship with her/him/them is best served by regular, (reasonably) disciplined activity on my part.
MC: What you’re describing, this symbiotic relationship between disciplined effort and muse/daimon-given inspiration, is a topic to which I’ve circled back repeatedly at this blog. This being the case, do you have any thoughts or advice to pass on to writers and other creative types about how to receive and develop ideas? Any advice on the specifically inspiration-driven end of things about ways to identify and develop their own unique passions and directions? I ask because this is exactly what you appear to be doing in your own work.
JL: Aside from the obvious, i.e. read and write a lot: I encourage my Creative Writing students to write out of their passions and obsessions because, from what I’ve seen of other writers, not to mention my own work, that seems the surest way to proceed. I think a lot of our passions/obsessions are already known to us, but in case they’re not, I ask my students what topics their friends are afraid to mention to them, because it’s going to result in a three-hour conversation. Any subject to which you keep returning is likely to yield some kind of interesting writing. I also think that any subject of which you find yourself habitually averse may be a place you need to go. In addition, because the people and places in our lives are so familiar to us, there’s a tendency not to recognize how idiosyncratic, even strange, they can be to others. Start with what’s familiar to you, and invent outwards from there.