DM: In his foreword to Burnt Black Suns, Laird Barron claims that the new millennium heralded ‘the dawn of a new golden age of dark literature’. Do you agree and, if so, why do you think there has been such a resurgence in weird fiction?
SS: It’s not that I don’t believe this, it’s that I think it’s premature to name this as a new golden age. That’s the sort of thing best left to historians looking back on the genre. But I’ll admit we’ve had an influx of great writers over the last decade or so, and the best of them bring something new to the table, all the while mining a history that extends back further than the decade previous, and stretch outward beyond the Horror aisle of the book shop. The boom years nearly killed the genre for a number of reasons, but the biggest might be the influx of writers looking to score big producing retreads of books only a few years old. For a generation of writers, the advice was to take influence from the current bestsellers. It led to a subsequent generation who either abandoned horror for a quick buck elsewhere, or who lacked knowledge of the genre’s history. It couldn’t have been easy to rectify, either, as the past masters were out of print and no one was inspired to change that. A dead generation later, things changed dramatically. Small presses appeared to give a voice to those new voices, but also to resurrect those past voices. Suddenly, readers could see what Machen and Blackwood and all the rest were about. The proliferation of the small press gave them a home, and the internet allowed them to spread. Horror’s return has been very much a grass-roots effort, and where it will go remains anyone’s guess. I keep hoping, with the transition to electronic devices, we’ll see horror return to the mainstream. But only time will tell.
DM: China Miéville claims that Lovecraft is preeminent 'among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point. The point is the weird'. Do you situate yourself within this tradition?
SS: For me, plot is a very important aspect of storytelling (although I’ll grant that I often obfuscate that plot when it suits the story or my mood) but it’s true it’s not the point of my strange or weird stories. However, rather than the weird being the point, my stories are intended to comment on our existence, and on our personal journey through it. The weird is simply a tool to do so, a way of abstracting the trials we face simply by being alive so a story can be told about them. Ultimately, I think a lot of fiction, Lovecraftian or not, treats plot and the trappings of the genre the same way. I know very few writers whose primary goal from a story is simply be weird.
DM: Do you think that the personal journey involved in the weird is linked to the prevalence of introversion and madness in the genre?
SS: I’m not so sure madness is all that prevalent in the genre. At least, not any more so than in any other mode of writing. But writers who struggle with introversion and mental illness no doubt find much about the weird that’s comforting. The weird celebrates a paranoiac’s world view, and gives an explanation for much that can afflict a troubled mind. But I also don’t believe only those with issues can enjoy the weird, or even that they are the ideal audience. I simply think it’s attractive to them in a way other genres are not. After all, the horror protagonist tends to be an outsider, both blessed and cursed with the ability to see what others can’t. On some level, the only difference between a super-hero story and a horror story is this first ends in successfully harnessing that sight, the second in succumbing to it.
DM: When writing weird fiction, how do you balance the wonder of cosmic horror with the nihilism embedded in the genre?
SS: I think wonder and awe are vitally important tools in a horror writer’s toolbox—perhaps even more important than fear. We can all imagine the threat of physical violence against us, but we’ve all experienced that occasional sense of displacement in our world, being out of sync with it, especially when confronted with something almost impossibly beautiful. Horror taps into that space, creating a waking dream for the reader to experience, a place where the fantastic can happen, and the rules that were once immutable can no longer be trusted. Nowhere is this more evident than in cosmic horror, where we are often expected to consider the greatest “other” of the cosmos and rationalize its effect against us. It seems only natural to me that this Other be viewed through a nihilistic lens. An indifferent universe is the greatest horror imaginable to any of us, one where our lives are insignificant against it. The fact that this horror is the ultimate truth is shocking to consider, and so impossible that we fail even trying to grasp it. For me, the balance of wonder and nihilism in cosmic horror is precisely the point of cosmic horror.
DM: This notion of an ‘indifferent universe’ seems to find expression in the landscape of your stories; as Barron notes, your ‘wilderness doesn’t discriminate’ when destroying those who explore it. How important is creating a sense of place in anchoring your cosmic horror to the world around us?
SS: A sense of place is always important. My work is often about that interstitial area between planes of existence, those soft spots where one world presses in on another. In order to convincingly convey this sense of terror at the invasion of the alien, one must first convincingly convey the verisimilitude of the world being invaded. So, yes, the environment must ring true, as must those who inhabit it. Only then can we fully relate to the impossible things that are happening to them, and buy into the notions that something else has its malignant eye on its inhabitants.
DM: The monsters in Burnt Black Suns are eclectic and imaginative. Do you see them as forming a loose mythos, or are they created to serve the specific needs of a story?
SS: I know some contemporary authors link their tales together to form their own mythos, and I can see how it’s a tool that can help amplify certain effects and aspects of the work, adding an extra level of complexity to the stories. Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” trilogy (and short stories) certain worked in this way, where one book, Mystery, reflected upon its follow-up, The Throat, adding unique resonances. That said, my own work does not tie together in any way beyond perhaps the exploration of common concerns and peccadilloes. Each monster in my stories is designed primarily to highlight aspects of the emotional core of the story being told, and in that sense can be viewed more as fantastical projections of those particular characters’ turmoil, a sort of reckoning that they know is coming, but flail against nonetheless.
DM: Burnt Black Suns is your fourth collection of short stories. Do you think that weird fiction especially lends itself to the short form and, if so, why?
SS: I’d say that horror and the weird rely heavily on mood, atmosphere, and emotion. It’s a heady brew and one that’s virtually impossible to sustain for an extended length. At least, not without cutting it with another genre. This is why most horror novels read like other novels with a horror element grafted on. The mystery, the thriller, the science-fiction adventure, these are all common partners for horror, and depending on the focus, can produce work that skews one way or the other. But the short story? The short story doesn’t need to sustain itself with multiple narratives and points of view. The short story is singular, focused, an art form that celebrates minimalism and efficiency—which doesn’t mean that short stories must be minimal and efficient, rather that they need to have a strong destination in mind. All of these things suit horror well, and stories that focus purely on the terrifying and horrific are possible in ways that almost never sustain themselves at novel length. In essence, to appreciate the weird or horrific, a mood must be set and a spell cast. Works that cannot be read in one sitting are subjected to the inference of life, and when life gets involved, those tenuous threads of atmosphere so delicately woven tend to break.
DM: The relationship between the weird and scientific discovery is examined in the collection through the disastrous consequences for those who seek to fathom the secrets of the universe. Do you consider cosmic horror to be in some ways antithetical to science fiction?
SS: That’s an interesting thought, one I’ve not considered before. I’ve often wondered if each genre could be boiled down to a single primal emotion. Obviously, Horror would boil down to horror, and Romance to romance, but what of the others? If science fiction could be boiled down (and let’s agree that by its very description this entire idea is so reductionist as to almost lose meaning) then I imagine it would be to hope. Hope for the future, for what humanity is capable of. Even the dystopian stories have their starting point in hope, albeit failed hope. Cosmic Horror is less about the absence of hope—or, rather, despair—and more about insignificance in the presence of reality. Superficially, I can see how one might view cosmic horror as the other side of the science fiction coin, but I don’t think it necessarily stands up to scrutiny. Instead, we must divorce science from Science Fiction in this case and realize that science’s quest for knowledge is instead the perfect vessel for tales of cosmic horror.
DM: Barron claims that with Burnt Black Suns you continue ‘a trajectory into deeper darkness like that probe sailing out of the solar system into the gulf of night’. Where do you see your writing taking you next? Are there further depths to explore?
SS: I appreciate what Laird Barron had to say in the flattering introduction he gave the book. I think, though, his comments reflect mostly my slow and steady transition from a writer of strange fiction to a writer of weird fiction. I’ll leave it to others to judge how large or insignificant a loss or gain this is, but it seems clear that my fiction has shifted weirder and more cosmic since I began publishing, and along with this mutation it seems only natural that my fiction will take a darker turn. But I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking the human soul doesn’t have plenty of pitch dark depths to plum, and I grow increasingly excited, year after year, to see how far into that tar pit I can sink.
Burnt Black Suns was a book wholly interested in exploring weird, cosmic fiction, and having now done so I’m eager to branch off into another direction for a while. Horror is such a vast and boundless genre that it will take me a lifetime to explore even a fraction of it. I’m elbow deep now in a novella that I believe will make readers forget all those I’ve previously written, and I hope to supplement it with more material that’s its equal. I can’t promise what will come next from me will be cosmic—I like to believe it won’t fit any such label so easily—but what I can promise is that I will do my best to surprise readers with what I can do. I honestly believe they haven’t seen anything yet.