Interview with Mark Samuels
“A sense of charnel glamour”:
An Interview with Mark Samuels
To begin with, I urge you, my eager reader, to hop on over to Mark Samuels’ website — www.marksamuels.net — and read the brief biography of him that’s available there. It’s customary for interviewers to begin by providing a biographical sketch of their subjects, but nothing I could write for you would do the job as well as that one.
In case you’re unwilling to leave The Teeming Brain for even a moment — and Cthulhu bless you if that’s the case — I’ll provide the following skeletal condensation of Mark’s curriculum vitae: He’s a Londoner in his late thirties who works for Samuel French, the venerable theatrical booksellers and leasing agents. He had a number of stories published in the horror small press in the late 1980s and early 1990s but then disappeared from the British horror scene until 1999, when he began writing again. Since 1999 his stories have appeared in some of the most popular and respected venues in horror publishing, such as editor John Pelan’s Darkside anthology series, and have been selected for inclusion in some of the prominent “best of” annual anthologies, including The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He has also had several books published, including the fiction collections The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003) and Black Altars (2003) and the short novel The Face of Twilight (2006), with more on the way. His work has garnered him enthusiastic praise from some of the most important and prominent authors in the genre, including T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell. In 2004 his White Hands collection and its title story were both finalists for the coveted British Fantasy Award, and both he and his work were held in such high esteem by the members of the British Fantasy Society that much grumbling resulted when he was passed over. In 2004 he married the acclaimed Mexican writer Adriana Diaz-Enciso.
There’s more to be said, but as I indicated, you’ll be better served by visiting his website. There’s also an article on him at Wikipedia that provides some further information. What I want to focus on right here, right now, is a single fact that appears in Mark’s online bio, and that I think is particularly effective in illuminating the nature of his drive to write weird horror fiction. “He was a failure at school,” the bio says, “taking little or no interest in classes and preferred to spend his time in Anerley library, reading science-fiction and horror.” You’ll forgive me if I invoke the name of depth psychologist James Hillman, whom I’ve mentioned several times at this blog, and follow an extended line of thought inspired by his book The Soul’s Code. In that book, which is subtitled “In Search of Character and Calling,” and which is devoted to exploring the issue of daimonic calling and life’s purpose, Hillman spends part of a chapter examining the poor school performance of many renowned writers, artists, musicians, and geniuses in other fields. Drawing from the book Cradles of Eminence, which he describes as “a delightful (and well-documented) report on the childhoods of four hundred famous modern persons,” Hillman reports that “three-fifths of the subjects ‘had serious school problems.’” The list of people reads like a litany of the globally renowned: Thomas Mann, Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Feynman, Kenneth Branagh, Jackson Pollock, Robert Browning, George Patton, Winston Churchill, Susan B. Anthony, Pearl Buck, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, and more. These people report variously that they hated school, that they rebelled against the teachers, that their teachers were harsh and cruel, that they (the students) suffered from learning disorders and/or were always the slowest in the classroom and/or that they were labeled as stupid or intractable, and that the entire schooling process was so intolerably dreary, unpleasant, and cross-grained to their natures that it was enough to induce everything from rage to despair.
Hillman uses this information in the service of his fundamental postulate of daimonic calling, which he also refers to as the “acorn theory.” Every person, he says, is born with a specific life pattern to which he or she is called. This serves as the acorn or seed of one’s entire life. It can also be explained by referring to the ancient Greek concept of the daimon, the personal spirit which influences, governs, and gives one’s life its fundamental tenor and direction. Hillman reads these stories of school problems backwards, as it were, by interpreting them as evidence of the acorn’s presence, the daimon’s refusal to submit to that which is intolerable and foreign to it. “Maybe,” he says, “we should read the data of learning disorders and the cases of school problems differently [from the normal view]. Instead of ‘failed at school,’ see ‘saved from school’ — not that this is my personal recommendation. I ask only that the sadnesses of children in school be imagined not merely as examples of failure but as exemplars of the acorn. The daimon’s intuition often cannot submit to the normalcy of schooling and becomes even more demonic. When we read life backward, when we look at the gestures of the acorn from the taller perspective of the full tree, we can gauge tuition against the importance of intuition.” In other words, when some (not all) students rebel against school by acting out or performing poorly, these very “negative” behaviors are in fact evidence of authenticity, of the deep self defying something that runs counter to its purposes. Intractability is actually spiritual self-defense.
Obviously, I have a keener-than-average interest in this type of thing since I spend five days a week, nine months out of the year, stuck — I mean, located — in a classroom with public high school students. I often ask myself how it is possible to distinguish daimonic resistance from mere asinine stubbornness, and equally often I think the answer is found in this: that some students don’t reject school because they want to do nothing, or to engage in foolish, stupid, and destructive activities for their own sake, but because there are other things about which they are genuinely passionate.
Which brings us back to Mark Samuels. I like to think that in the image of that boy who “was a failure at school,” and who took “little or no interest in classes” because he would rather “spend his time in Anerley library, reading science-fiction and horror,” the acorn or daimon of the mature Mark Samuels was asserting itself. I don’t know whether he performed poorly in his language and literature classes — it occurs to me now that I probably should have asked him about this when I interviewed him — but if so, I hope one or more of his teachers are aware of his status as a rising literary star. His words in the interview that follows, and also his published stories and books, show that it certainly wasn’t lack of intelligence that made the young Mark a poor student.In his response to one of my questions below, he says he fell in love with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft at age fifteen because Lovecraft made the world more interesting by “providing it with a sense of charnel glamour for which I’d been searching during my youth.”Both the blossoming of this literary love and the preexistence of such a rarefied emotional desire would have been concurrent with Mark’s poor performance in school.Just more evidence, I think, in favor of the daimonic postulate.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mark and I are good friends, although our correspondence has been spotty for the past two or three years (owing mainly, I think, to my recurring tendency to fall back into myself and lapse into unresponsiveness to the world). We met back in 2000 via our mutual love of Thomas Ligotti and his work. Mark had read my story “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” at Thomas Ligotti Online. He wrote me an email in praise of it and sent me a copy of his own novelette-length story “Dedicated to the Weird,” which I devoured in one sitting. I wrote back to him to express my amazement at the way our thematic interests came together not only in general terms, but in many of the specific images and turns of phrase that we used. He agreed. And this proved to be the start of a wonderful friendship. We exchanged more of our stories in manuscript form. We talked about philosophy, literature, and life in general. We finally met in the flesh in 2002 at the World Horror Convention. Then we met again at the 2003 convention. We enjoyed each other’s company as much in person as in cyberspace.
My story “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” went on to appear in my first fiction collection, Divinations of the Deep, in 2002. Mark’s “Dedicated to the Weird” went on to appear in his second fiction collection, Black Altars, in 2003. So it now seems our respective writing careers are running a roughly parallel course. The difference between them, however, may be found an observation offered by an astute reviewer at Fantastic Metropolis a few years ago. In a review of the White Hands collection, Gabriel Messa wrote, “Thomas Ligotti has become an inescapable influence on the younger crop of promising writers of literary horror like Matt Cardin, Stephen Sennitt, Quentin Crisp, and Mark Samuels.” He then wrote what ought to be put in italics, boldface, caps — whatever will draw attention to it: “Samuels may be the best of the lot.”
Or perhaps it would be better to end this introduction with a quote from Tom Ligotti himself, since he serves in so many ways as the master magus who, often without even meaning to, sits at the center of a massive web of literary and spiritual influence: “[The White Hands] is a treasure and a genuine contribution to the real history of weird fiction.”
The following interview was conducted over the course of about a month in August and September of 2006.
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MC: Thanks for sitting down in cyberspace to chat with me, Mark.I’d like to start by asking you about the very beginnings of your writing life.Every writer was originally drawn to the craft by a deep love of reading.What were the earliest literary experiences that affected you this way?Who are the authors who inspired you to write?
MS: The main impetus behind my wanting to write fiction was my discovery of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales when I was fifteen. Lovecraft, for me, made the world itself much more interesting, providing it with a sense of charnel glamour for which I’d been searching during my youth. I very much saw everything through his eyes for a period thereafter. Later on, I discovered the work of Arthur Machen, which, I think, has been an even greater influence upon my adult life and attempts at fiction.
MC: That forms a really interesting inverse parallel with the experience of Tom Ligotti, who discovered Machen and Lovecraft in the opposite order and found Lovecraft to be the greater influence.Can you say what it is about Machen—the man, his work, his creative vision—that appeals to you so much?I know you’ve produced some solid scholarship about him, so maybe you’ve already answered this question in print elsewhere.
MS: I’m really not much of a scholar. I know a lot of Machen enthusiasts who are able to write much more authoritatively than I can on the subject: the likes of Roger Dobson, Ray Russell, Gwilym Games, Godfrey Brangham, Aidan Reynolds, etc., etc. This year I became General Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and hope to use what little standing and influence I might possess to keep the memory of this great author alive.
As for the reasons behind his great influence on my life, Machen had a significant advantage over Lovecraft for me, in that he was a Londoner like myself. So I could immediately identify with the locales he describes in much of his fiction in a way that I couldn’t with Lovecraft’s Providence and Rhode Island. Machen’s vision of London as some interminable labyrinth of mysterious wonder and horror took firmer hold of my imagination, since I experienced it on a daily basis. Now one could argue that this is just an accident of birth and has no bearing on their respective literary merits, which I think is true. In terms of their contribution to the literary weird continuum, I would place them on an approximately equal level. I don’t think Machen’s work is, overall, necessarily superior to Lovecraft’s. Only HPL could have produced a story as relentlessly cosmic in scope as, say, “The Colour Out of Space” or “At the Mountains of Madness” (although I think he faltered by humanising his star-headed Old Ones in that novella). On the other hand only Machen could have produced something as profoundly representative of transcendental evil as “The White People” or as elegiac and poisonously beautiful as The Hill of Dreams. Both men were remarkable prose-stylists who recognised that the creation of atmosphere in a supernatural horror tale required a language of heightened sensitivity.
I also find Machen a more sympathetic individual than Lovecraft in terms of recognising more of my own mature attitudes, biases and concerns in his life and work. But this is only a prejudice on my part and no indicator of anything other than a preference for mysticism over scientific materialism. I think that it is a mistake to ascribe greater artistic merit to literary works simply because we happen to personally share whatever underlying philosophy we can detect within them.
MC: Does your preference for Machen’s mysticism, as opposed to Lovecraft’s nihilistic scientific materialism, indicate something about your personal spiritual outlook or religious beliefs?If so, have these found their way into any of your stories?
MS: I am a Roman Catholic. But I really wouldn’t dream of trying to incorporate any moral teaching into my weird fiction. I am not a proselytiser. What attracts me most about the Church is its mystical dimension. I also believe that we exist in a fallen universe and that human nature is immutable. But I don’t see myself as a Gnostic. The Gnostics were not as glamorous as we have been led to believe; in fact most of their conclusions would not have been out of place in the current Methodist Church.
MC: Have you ever felt any kind of internal conflict between your Catholic religiosity and the supreme cosmic and metaphysical grimness that characterizes your fiction? Any thoughts or doubts about whether and how these can coexist? Any sense of internal dividedness? In my own experiences, I’ve found that I do experience an internal spiritual-philosophical conflict stemming from the interplay between my “real” outlook and my “fictional” one — note that the quotation marks are significant there — and that this leads me to gravitate naturally toward a position that’s very much akin to the attitude of equipoise favored by the ancient Greek skeptics. Except mine’s considerably darker than their relaxed attitude of intellectual repose. But I can’t help wondering whether the fundamentals, the philosophical bedrock, of your Roman Catholicism, as opposed to the Zen-flavored outlook of my generalized nondualism, might make it more difficult for you to reconcile your religiosity with the deep cosmic darkness that characterizes all weird fiction, including your own.
MS: I don’t really see my writings in the supernatural horror genre as representative of my religious beliefs, or of the totality of my experiences. I see them as almost exactly the reverse, as if these fragments of a sub-created literary universe must, inevitably, be wilfully nightmarish in order to succeed aesthetically. However, this attitude only applies to my work within this particular genre. When it comes to the fantasy novel I’m currently writing, whose provisional title is Chthonopolis, my perspective is much wider, more personal and concerned with redemption (without, I hope, straying into allegory).
MC: In addition to Machen and Lovecraft, who do you identify as some of the other greats, both past and present, in the field of supernatural horror fiction?
MS: I think my list of great weird fiction authors of the past would include all the usual suspects: Machen, Lovecraft, Borges, Poe, Blackwood, M.R. James, Fritz Leiber, and so on.
The greatest living author of weird fiction is Thomas Ligotti. A reasonably close second would be T.E.D. Klein. I have a great deal of admiration for Ramsey Campbell’s more cosmic-oriented works, such as “The Franklyn Paragraphs,” “Cold Print” and “The Voice of the Beach.”I wish we could see more from him in this vein.
When it comes to other present day writers, I have a great fondness for those weird fiction authors who are every bit as deserving of attention as their more commercially successful literary cousins but who haven’t necessarily reached that wider audience. I mean the likes of Reggie Oliver, Eddy C. Bertin, Ron Weighell, Quentin S. Crisp, Terry Lamsley, Mark Valentine, Joel Lane, Paul Pinn and some fellow named Matt Cardin. There are quite a few up and coming horror writers that are well worth my mentioning in this connection too: Richard Gavin, Stuart Young and Simon Strantzas, for example. I also very much appreciate the relentlessly bleak prose nightmares conjured up by the likes of John B. Ford and Eddie M. Angerhuber.
MC: That’s an interesting list, although I’m not so sure about the inclusion of that Cardin fellow.The general slant of your choices leads me to wonder whether you hold any strong theoretical views about supernatural horror in general—its nature, boundaries, meaning, and function—and whether and how these views play into your fiction.I’m also interested in your thoughts about cinematic horror, since I know you’ve recently done a bit of writing about horror films.
MS: I’m not sure that there’s much I could add to the vast body of horror film criticism. Whereas in theory I should only applaud the vision of works like “Night of the Living Dead,” “Carnival of Souls,” “Nosferatu”, “Dead of Night” and so on, in practice I enjoy trashy and schlock horror movies (especially 70’s portmanteaus) as much as the next zombie.
As for horror fiction, I’m very conscious of writing primarily in the tradition of cosmic horror. Unfortunately, it’s a dying form. Horror fiction is now an almost entirely anthropocentric genre. Listening to the views of modern horror writers, one would be right in thinking that their prime objective is to try and raise the literary standards in an admittedly over-commercialised range of genres. This is laudable. But we also find that this objective often incorporates the assumption that serious literature should act as a vehicle for socio-political commentary.
My response to this is that it doesn’t matter if a writer believes he or she utilises the living dead as a symbol of the dispossessed proletariat, hairy succubae as a sign of misogyny or carnivorous fungi as representative of global capitalism. Art proceeds from Mystery. What matters is the treatment of the theme, the skill in the telling of the tale, and how successfully the atmosphere surrounding the phenomena is evoked. If these criteria are met, as judged by a common emotional response, then the story is effective.
What we need is more quality fiction on the horror, SF and fantasy shelves of booksellers, and not an absorption into the mainstream. I think it better for those of us writing supernatural horror fiction to take pride in what sets us apart, and what elements make our tradition distinctive and unique.
MC: What do you see as some of these distinctive elements?
MS: Well, an obvious one is the view that the human paradigm can be contextualised. This school of thinking came to produce what was known as “cosmic horror,” in which man was seen in relation to infinity and eternity, and his own self-importance diminished. Unfortunately, this approach has been overshadowed by the demand for an emphasis on characterisation and “psychological fidelity.”
Horror authors ought not to be valued simply as social commentators or political theorists who hold views with which we agree, and who appear merely to have condescended to write horror fiction rather than mainstream fiction. There is no need for us to make excuses for our art, insinuating that the best supernatural horror fiction simply utilises metaphors in order to deal with more pressing societal or psychological issues. Even when an accomplished author attempts to write horror fiction on this basis, the outcome is often that the work transcends whatever socio-political message has been imposed upon it, and still savours of the ineffable.
After all, what could be more vital than the awful mystery of our own existence and the enigma of this spectral cosmos we all inhabit? It has been an integral part of man’s experience since one of the first of our ape-like ancestors stood on two legs, turned its gaze upward to the night sky and felt a holy dread. Supernatural horror fiction remains a valid artistic end in itself, a response to being alive.
Jorge Luis Borges once made the claim, and it’s one that I think is credible, that philosophy is just another branch of fantastic literature. A combination of mere words cannot contain all the truth about the universe. This might also be the case with politics. The post-Holocaust Necronomicon is Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And Karl Marx in his monumental Das Kapital often seemed to draw upon the model of the sensational gothic novel for his effects. Politics can proceed from aesthetics, rather than the other way around.
MC: I find such comparisons fascinating.In a slight twist on this type of thing, I’d like to ask you what may seem a rather odd question: As a sensitive reader with a wide-ranging literary knowledge, can you think of any particular literary theory, or novelistic worldview, or political or philosophical system, that in your opinion reflects the felt experience of our present 21st century life?Or to put it much more concisely, if we were living inside a book or an author’s mind, given the state of the world as you observe it right now, what book or which author do you think it would it be?
MS: If it’s literary prophets one’s seeking, then I suppose, from the West’s perspective, that Borges, Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard fit the bill.
MC: Those are some fairly dystopian sounding choices, if I’m reading your meaning correctly.So what’s the social environment like in England right now?Over here in America, I’m gripped by the distinct impression that life is spinning out of control as it dances to the tune of economic globalization, the West’s (or maybe just America and England’s) “war on terror,” fears about oil depletion and other energy issues, a collapsing real estate bubble, fears about catastrophic climate change, and more.Does this resonate with anything that you’re observing or experiencing across the pond, either in your own personal life or in life at large?
MS: I think the debate here in the UK is every bit as polarised as it is in the USA. It seems to me that people arrive at their conclusions in very complex political or philosophical matters not by assimilating all the relevant information about the subject but rather by filtering out those aspects that are not in accord with a pre-theorised worldview. These worldviews are simply narrative structures. We invest value in these narratives to the point that, when they come under threat from an outside source, we react with dialectics or violence. The more we have psychologically invested in the integrity of these narrative structures, the greater the adverse response is likely to be when they are challenged. This can even extend to entire societies. Post-Enlightenment thinkers tend to consider reason as being autonomous. I see reason as more of an aspect, just like emotion or perception, subject to the total human paradigm.
MC: Returning to the subject of your writing, can you offer a window into your creative process? How does a Mark Samuels story first take root? What do you think, feel, intuit, experience, that lets you know the muse is speaking, or a new shoot is sprouting, or the engine is running (pick your metaphor)?
MS: It usually begins with an image that I can’t shake off. If it plays around in my head for long enough I start to imagine a narrative forming around it. I spend a lot of time thinking about a tale before I muster the courage to write anything. I have to be excited about the prospect of bringing the whole concept into existence. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.
MC: Can you share an example of one or more of those starting images?Say, with regards to “The White Hands” (one of my favorites) or any other stories of your choice?
MS: Well, “The White Hands” had a literary rather than real-life genesis from an image. My friend, Joel Lane, recently remarked to me that the story reminded him a little of Eddy C. Bertin’s tale “Like Two White Spiders”. This, in fact, is a story that I first read many years ago, perhaps as far back as 1983. So that image of disembodied hands seems to have been buried in my mind until around ten years later when I wrote the first draft of what was to become “The White Hands.” So, in that instance, the transformation of an isolated image into full-blown weird tale proved an unusually lengthy process. I suspect that, in turn, Bertin’s own story might derive from William Fryer Harvey’s earlier “The Beast with Five Fingers” and that one, in turn, was probably influenced by Guy De Maupassant’s “The Hand.”
MC: During your several years of authorial silence in the mid- and late 1990s, did these types of images stop coming to you? Or was it simply that you had lost the will and/or motivation to carry through on them?
MS: Not really. I have a notebook full of such images but, at that time, had no confidence in my ability to incorporate them within the wider fictional context.
MC: Many writers have talked about their little authorial rituals, such as specific times, places, equipment, and circumstances that need to be in place before they can write. Do you have anything like this?
MS: Generally, I write in the evenings. This is the price of holding down a day-job. But I don’t have any rituals of which I’m aware. I suppose I prefer to write with some appropriate mood-music playing in the background. That’s about all.
MC: What kind of music?
MS: I can’t concentrate on lyrics while I’m writing prose; in fact I find singing conflictive to the task in hand, so most of the stuff tends to be instrumental. Film soundtracks by composers such as Philip Glass and Clint Mansell work well for me.
MC: You mentioned your day job.How well does this interface with your writer’s life?
MS: It scarcely interfaces with it at all. They’re two almost entirely separate aspects. There might be some incidental details that creep into my writing; for example, the tower described in “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror” is directly visible from the window in the office where I work, and my duties entail some knowledge of copyright as in “The Impasse.” I can’t think of any other correlations right now.
MC: How has married life been interacting with your writing? I ask because I know you’ve only been married a relatively short time, and during my own nearly 14 years of marriage I’ve had great difficulty finding a workable balance between family life and creative endeavors.It seems I’m always short-changing one side or the other.
MS: Married life hasn’t impacted on my writing at all. My wife, Adriana Diaz-Enciso, is actually better known as a writer in her native Mexico than I could hope to be in my native England. We both recognise the importance of time and space for our respective literary endeavours and support one another absolutely.
MC: That sounds like a wonderfully liberating arrangement for the both of you.Given such freedom and support, what’s your ultimate intention with your writing endeavors?Do you harbor any authorial ambitions that drive you onward?Are there any ultimate goals you’d like to achieve?
MS: I’m not aware of having any such aims. Things like awards, for example, which seem important to many writers, are just a bizarre form of popularity contest, and of real significance only to publishers. Most author interviewees would, I fear, at this point, be playing to the gallery by claiming that they have a long and potentially highly successful commercial career as an author in prospect. I can’t say that about myself. I have no idea what will happen in the future.
MC: What can you tell us about your current writing projects and forthcoming publications?
MS: My next collection of short stories is to be published by Midnight House. Its provisional title is Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes. I wouldn’t expect this to see print until 2008 or 2009. I’m in the middle of writing Cthonopolis, the full-length dark fantasy novel I mentioned earlier, and am around 45,000 words into it. But this is not, overall, a work of supernatural horror fiction, although it contains this element. I have no idea whether or not it will see print.
MC: For readers who are new to your work, where would you suggest they start?What story or book do you think best represents you as the author you want to be, or which of them are you the most satisfied with?
MS: I expect that “The White Hands” (in the restored version contained in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #15) or “The Search for Kruptos” would prove good starting points. If a reader enjoys those two tales I’d suggest that they try The Face of Twilight, which is my short novel published this year by PS Publishing. I think this is probably the most interesting work that I have thus far produced.
MC: Mark, I want to thank you again for your time.I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from you and about in the future.
MS: Thanks for saying that. I’ll do my best to try and stick around for a while longer yet.