Editor's Note: Dan and I have been writer buddies since we met at Clarion in 2002. He is a fine writer with a verve for strange imaginings. Our tastes converge on all of the writers he discusses here--Tim Powers, Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Ray Bradbury--but that does not prevent me from being critical. Here, for example, while Dan discusses setting, I suspect the success of these writers has just as much to do with an elusive quality of voice as setting. He is correct: These writers do pour themselves into their worlds... but also their words--the way they are told. What do you think? What accounts for the power of these tales? Character, plot, setting, or voice?
“Where we had thought to be all alone we shall be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell
Welcome to weird wishes. This is the first in a series of essays on strange tales, weird fiction, and supernatural fiction I’ve been putting together in connection with my second short story collection. The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic by Independent Legions Publishing.
This first essay is called “Night Marches and Weird Wishes- my journey into strange fiction.” I talk about my experiences creating the book, learning about weird fiction, and one of my favorite topics, setting.
The quote by Joseph Campbell comes to mind writing this and revisiting my “Night Time Logic” written over one year ago for Shane Keene’s Shotgun Logic blog. Here is the link.
I wrote the stories in The Night Marchers and the essay in what I now think of as a "weird fiction vacuum.” At the time, I knew little about the history of and the authors comprising the weird fiction genre. This past year following the publication of both the book and the essay has been a delight of learning, exploring, and discovering so many new-to-me writers and stories.
Being a new comer to something long-established has proven to be both an overwhelming and exciting experience. There are so many essential and classic authors I have never read and so many I am just "discovering." The well is deep. And weird fiction is going strong. It has been said we are in a weird-fiction renaissance. Judging from the many exciting emerging authors and publishers and the quality and breadth of the work they are producing I find it hard to disagree.
So where I had thought I was all alone, writing the stories in The Night Marchers, little did I know I really “was with all the world”- or at least with writers, readers, artists, editors, publishers, and academics fueling a phenomenon. The exciting part of this journey of education and exploration is the learning and sharing. I have a lot of gratitude to the authors and professionals (such as my Cemetery Dance editor Norman Prentiss just to name one) who have shared their knowledge, passion, and experience without ego or judgement. After writing and publishing for over a decade and a half I was very grateful to serendipitously learn that there was a “place” in a bigger picture where my work fit in. While following my own writing path I was contributing to and part of a greater whole all along.
Another exciting part of this experience was that my second short story collection The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions, July 2017) came out quickly on the heels of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance, May 2016). All of The Wish Mechanics stories were written from 2002 to 2016 at the same time and right along with the stories comprising The Night Marchers. The Wish Mechanics was a book that revealed itself when Norman Prentiss and I were choosing the table of contents for The Night Marchers. I quickly realized I was working with at least two books of material. The core of The Wish Mechanics came together when I saw thematic and other similarities in the stories I had ruled out for The Night Marchers. While these stories were ruled out for the simple reason that they didn't feel right for a Cemetery Dance release; when I thought about them more carefully I noticed that the stories had what we might commonly think of as the Science Fiction and Fantasy elements in the forefront.
Both books contain stories that operate on night time logic and stories of supernatural and literary horror. The Wish Mechanics departs into different terrain than The Night Marchers with stories that steer into areas often reserved for or thought of as science fiction and fantasy. An example of this kind of story is my short story "Sumo 21." (This story is slated for a future project and does not appear in either book) You can read listen to it here at for free at Escape Pod.
While it was originally published in a science fiction and fantasy publication the story also has elements that can be said to be hallmarks of weird fiction and cosmic horror. I mention "Sumo 21" as it illustrates a kind of story found in The Wish Mechanics without spoiling any of those found in the book. Instead of listing the table of contents of The Wish Mechanics and the different kinds of stories I’ll preview the topics of the forthcoming essays I am working on, the topics of which give a good idea of the terrain the stories in the book traverse:
- How does weird fiction intersect and interact with other genres? A look at weird fiction through the lens of noir, magic realism, science fiction, fantasy and horror. When does genre transcend genre?
- The shape of fear and wonder. What are common expectations and structures for a horror story? An examination of stories that subvert and play with expectations.
- Alternate worlds. A history and analysis of stories where characters cross from one “world” to another.
- Fairy tales and modern myths. A history of the fairy tale and mythological story. What are these stories made of? How do they use and transcend genre?
- The ghost story. Why do we love them and why do they work? What are the outer limits, if any, on what constitutes one?
- The weird monster. A case study. Vampires. Can a classic monster be “weird”? Why do we love or hate them? A history of depictions, tropes, and transformation of the vampire.
- The weird monster. Cryptids: A case study. An examination of the fact and fiction of crytpozoology. An examination of the use of crytpids as monsters in supernatural and weird fiction.
- Music as magic. Magic as transformation. A history and analysis of stories where music is essential to or is the speculative element.
It makes a certain kind of sense to me that the subject of this first essay is setting because setting is often the starting point of my creative process of writing a short story.
While I’m not sure why I often start with setting, I could write tons exploring the subject. What is much clearer to me are the authors and stories that inspired me early on, those who inspire me now, and how I perceive their use of setting. Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Robert Aickman, Ernest Hemmingway, Lee Thomas, Sarah Langan, James Tiptree Jr., and Ray Bradbury come to mind.
I’ve written and published over forty short stories and spent years studying and thinking about dramatic structure. As time passes it becomes harder for me to perceive setting as a unique and separate element from the other essential elements of story. One way to “look at” story is to consider character, conflict, and setting. We’ve all seen countless iterations of this approach. Often the focus is on character and or conflict. ‘Conflict drives character’, ‘Conflict equals plot,’ ‘Drama consists of dynamic characters, obstacles, and change,’ are common discussions.
One of my approaches to story is to create with setting as an initial and essential part of the framework. The setting-centric stories I have read, for lack of a better term, deliver a special verisimilitude that creates the magical and immersive experience I crave as a reader and are what I am interested in writing. I notice stories that fail to deliver a character and conflict grounded in and connected to a setting cause stories to fail or fall short in my opinion. Stories that excite me and transport me often have a character and conflict born from setting. I’ll present a few stories to illustrate and explore this notion.
“Because Our Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee’s deep catalog of work features settings ranging from fantastic worlds born of her imagination to beautiful evocations of earthly locations. Her short story “Because Our Skins Are Finer” first published in the Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983 and reprinted her Arkham House collection Dreams of Dark and Light in 1986 features a setting that was far away and exotic to my teen-aged self when I first encountered it in a suburban library in the United States.
One of the things setting can do is provide a “kind of” access to places a reader has not encountered. This reading-as-a-way-to-experience-the-far-away-and-the-wider-world was very likely in play and a large part of the appeal to me when I first read it. Now as an adult and as a student (and want-to-be-teacher) of fiction this aspect operates as a gateway or a first layer analysis of setting and story.
Although the story’s setting is a real world one and the “monster” is one closely associated with that place in folklore and fiction, I knew of neither when I first read it. To me the setting was as wild and inventive as her secondary world work and as far as I knew, a fictional place. Have a look at the opening paragraph:
“In the early winter, when the seas are strong, the gray seals come ashore among the islands. Their coats are like the dull silver in the cold sunlight, and for these coats of theirs men kill them. It has always been so, one way and another. There were knives and clubs, now there are the guns, too. A man with his own gun and his own boat does well from the seals, and such a man was Huss Hullas. A grim and taciturn fellow he was, with no kin, and no kindness, living alone in his sea-gray croft on the sea rim of Dula under the dark old hill. Huss Hullas had killed in his time maybe three hundred seals, and then, between one day and the next, he would not go sealing anymore, not for money and surely not for love.”
This paragraph and the story that follows is an excellent illustration of the notion of a character and a conflict born from setting. Both the character and conflict are almost inextricable from the setting we are given in this paragraph. I imagine the story fails or becomes very different if attempted in a different place. I have heard Tanith Lee’s creative process was very organic and her stories are born from instinct or almost channeled as opposed to a “pre-planned” or “thought-out” or analytical approach. Intent and method matter little when the result is successful. I mention her organic approach to place it in contrast to the analytical eye with which I am dissecting the story and the notion of setting. Whatever her approach, the resulting story illustrates the kind of setting-centric story I am exploring. My initial reaction to the story was visceral. What has stayed with me for all the years since is the visceral connection and belief in the emotional reality. Without knowing the name of the setting or whether it was real or not Tanith Lee (and the setting she chose) achieved something special and rare. It moved me. It became a real part of my personal landscape. I feel the setting and Tanith Lee’s use of it was why the other aspects and the story as a whole remained with me. Perhaps it could be said setting is the element and or catalyst as to why the story succeeds in delivering verisimilitude and a lasting emotional connection.
As a reader I yearn for these kinds of stories with settings inhabited by such characters and their conflicts. As a writer while setting inspires me and comes to me organically I often take an analytical approach in choosing which character(s) and conflict(s) to portray.
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard
While I knew the next story to discuss in regard to setting would be “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard I wasn’t consciously thinking that the protagonists of both stories are repentant hunters. But they are.
I encountered The Jaguar Hunter at literally the same time I encountered Because Our Skins are Finer. One day I brought home the Arkham House edition of the Jaguar Hunter collection along with Dreams of Dark and Light from my local library.
Lucius Shepard’s prose style defies convention with elegant, long and flowing sentences that often described tropical locations. While I will always connect the element of setting with Lucius Shepard’s sentences, contained in them are masterful depictions of his characters and the conflicts defining them.
Consider the opening paragraph of “The Jaguar Hunter”:
“It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, the appliance dealer, that brought Esteban Caxx to town for the first time in almost a year. By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Incarnacion. Puerto Morada, with its fruit company imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music; was a place he avoided like the plague: indeed, from his home atop the mountain whose slopes formed the northernmost enclosure of Bahia Onda, the rusted tin roofs ringing the bay resembled a dried crust of blood such as might appear upon the lips of a dying man.”
The story is another excellent example of characters closely tied to their setting with unique troubles and conflicts specifically arising from it. The story not only provides that first layer / gateway experience I previously mentioned and a character and conflict born of setting, but also a conflict that deepens as the story moves deeper into the setting.
The editor’s introduction in the F&SF magazine original appearance of the story relays that Puerto Morada, Hondoras is a real place and the story was born from a conversation with a real jaguar hunter the author met. The story certainly delivers on what I call the first layer / gateway by functioning to bring the reader (at least the American reader) to a far away place many may have never been or might never go.
The initially presented conflicts in “The Jaguar Hunter” are Estaban’s external conflict of having to return the appliance and his internal conflict of wishing to avoid returning to hunting. These are certainly very closely tied to where the story is taking place.
After he is forced to go off to “hunt” the jaguar the setting moves from Esteban’s home village to the Honduran jungle and the ruins of an abandoned fruit company farm slated for development. These settings not only add resonant subtext, what is at stake for Esteban is heightened. Both conflicts progress with the setting. Esteban’s life and liberty are in jeopardy but also the very nature of what is means for him to exist. Shepard’s setting choices frame, define, and heighten the conflicts. The way Esteban’s choices have the potential to change the setting and the way his choices are defined by the setting is masterful, satisfying, and unique to the story.
A discussion of what one thinks happens to Esteban and what one thinks may or may not be happening transcends the analysis of setting and lends itself to a discussion of fabulism and weird fiction. The Jaguar Hunter originally appeared in the magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which primarily presents fantasy stories. It also appeared in Lucius’ first collection alongside stories of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Having hallmarks and elements of each of those kinds of stories it could have easily been presented in a publication of any of those genres.
"The Jaguar Hunter" in my opinion, can also be thought of as a fabulist and or a weird fiction story. Rather than repeat my full discussion of the Swords by Robert Aickman I again direct you to the above link to my Night Time Logic essay where I discuss it more fully.
One of the hallmarks of the Swords and perhaps too of weird fiction is that the stories have a speculative element or supernatural encounter that is not “defined”.
The Swords is one of the best or at least my favorite illustration of this notion. In the story the narrator has encounters with a woman who appears to be immune to physical injury. No reason is given as to how or why the woman is this way. We can imagine reasons corresponding to hallmarks of the various genres mentioned above. For example we could say the woman is “undead”, or the woman is protected by a magic spell, or that the woman is not a woman but a robot. None of these “explanations” is given or even alluded to but I offer them to show that doing so could color or push the story into being closer to horror, fantasy, or science fiction respectively. This lack of explanation lends itself to the story fitting in to a weird fiction classification.
In the Jaguar Hunter, like the Swords, the speculative element is also not overtly explained or defined. The setting and the context of the story steers this reader towards a metaphorical interpretation of the ending, a hauntingly beautiful passage of prose, and thus the story. Metaphorical or not, it is easy to categorize the Jaguar Hunter a work of magic realism.
There is night time logic in play in “The Jaguar Hunter.” What is happening and what happens is felt but not explained. The intentional lack of an explanation prevents the story from fitting neatly into a trope or genre and is a hallmark of weird fiction. The mixing of genres while never landing on merely ones shows how the story could be said to transcend into the realm of literary fabulisim. Whatever story elements are in play or whatever classification or school we might use to analyze the story the end result in my opinion is a work of art that is hard to forget and has the rare effect of touching and creating an emotional reality.
It is hard for me to conceive of these three stories being successful or at least the same in different settings. Even in the seemingly mundane setting of the Swords, the believable way England is depicted is the necessary grounding that allows us to both believe in the characters and the reality of the world presented. Because of setting we are able to readily suspend disbelief when presented with the supernatural and unexplained encounter which is the catalyst to the emotional impact of the story. Tim Powers work also expertly presents the reader with deceptively simple, masterfully rendered real world settings that also serve as groundings for the fantastic and unique supernatural events his characters encounter.
There are so many other examples of unique and effective uses of setting I could explore. Hemmingway’s prose, (perhaps the opposite of Shepard’s in style with its shorter sentences) also delivers crystalline depictions of setting. Even though Hemmingway’s far-away places are not populated with the supernatural and unexplained Aickman, Lee, and Shepard’s settings are and thus no need to ground us in reality, his settings offer the anchor to the emotional places his characters go.
Another noteworthy setting is delivered in the opening line of William Gibsons’s classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. In the near future world Gibson creates and presents, our own world is recognizable in it and our own human conflicts are explored.
Other noteworthy real-world settings can be found in the work of authors Lee Thomas and Sarah Langan. Both authors masterfully incorporate a sense of place in their stories and I feel the places they present define the struggles of their characters.
New Orleans is a setting that recurs in Lee Thomas’s novels. In Thomas’s Dust of Wonderland and Down on Your Knees, New Orleans itself is so expertly depicted it could be said to be a character. Both novels are not only masterful works of character and imagination they are excellent examples of the kind of setting driven stories I am illustrating here.
Sarah Langan’s expertly depicted settings of places we know provide the grounding for the familiar characters she portrays and their struggles with threats born of this world and beyond. A setting that stands out even among the high bar of her work is the “haunted house” in her modern masterpiece novel Audrey’s Door. The genre transcending novel is one of the finest novels I have read, period; but I mention it here because as it works so well in an analysis of setting in weird and literary fiction.
The settings presented in Audrey’s Door are instantly recognizable as an America we know. Yet they operate much in the same way setting in “The Jaguar Hunter” do by defining and deepening the conflicts of the protagonist, Audrey. As Audrey moves from one setting to another the conflicts deepen and expand Audrey’s internal and external conflicts. Audrey’s antagonists and challenges are all born from the setting. Like “The Jaguar Hunter,” the setting in Audrey’s Door could be said to shift from something strange yet definable to something undefinable or possibly metaphorical. Both “The Jaguar Hunter” and Audrey’s Door conclude in ways that defy convention and easy explanation. Both through use of their uniquely chosen settings create magnificent resonance that delivers something vital that lives beyond the pages.
As I write this essay I am reading Brabury’s Death is a Lonely Business. Bradbury’s prose which depicts a Venice that has come and gone is not only lovely, controlled, and evocative it adds subtext and layers to the noir style and the protagonist’s conflicts.
It is hard to imagine the real-world settings of my short stories, “The Night Marchers,” “The Ghost Dance,” and “The Sphinx of Cropsey Avenue” in other places other than the chosen settings. The stories “The Canopy Crawlers” and “The Wish Mechanics” from The Wish Mechanics both contain fantastic worlds (barely recognizable as our own) with settings that I hope deliver characters and conflicts essential to and born of setting.
My forthcoming and recently released stories, “Goodnight Kookuburra” (the Gold Coast, Australia), “Cloudland Earthbound” (Brisbane, Australia) and “Palankar” (Quintanno Roo, Mexico) are among the most setting intensive of my work to date. I hope through them you might find gateways to far-away places and perhaps also understandings.
Thank you for coming along for this. Forthcoming shortly will be a companion post with discussion questions about setting for The Wish Mechanics for your discussion and or book group to use.