John Langan’s most recent collection of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, was published earlier this year by Hippocampus Press. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “powerful,” declaring, “Fans of highly original modern horror fiction will find this volume a must-read.” The author of a novel, House of Windows, and a previous collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, Langan has been called “an emerging master of the elegant macabre” by Locus magazine. His stories have appeared in numerous anthologies including Ellen Datlow’s Blood and Other Cravings and Ross Lockhart’s The Book of Cthulhu. With Paul Tremblay, Langan has co-edited Creatives: Thirty Years of Monsters. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, younger son, and a coterie of animals.
C. Derick Varn: Why do you think the hard line between literary and genre fiction emerges in the early 20th century when it had not really been there before? If one looks at the career of Ambrose Bierce or Edgar Allen Poe, the distinction obviously isn’t there.
John Langan: While I’m no expert in these matters, I suspect a distinction between the literary and popular, if you will, had been in place somewhat longer than that. From the standpoint of critical estimation, we should remember that Poe died in disrepute, after a career of writing works whose reception was mixed, at best. It took Baudelaire and the French literati to help reveal to the American critical establishment the true measure of the man’s accomplishment. This split was internalized by at least some of the other writers of the day: Hawthorne inveighed against the “damned mob of scribbling women” whose more popular books outsold his. That pushes the divide back into the nineteenth century, and I would guess it was there in the eighteenth, too; after all, the novel–which really explodes onto the scene in that century–was, almost from its inception, a form approached with considerable critical disregard. All of which is to say that I think there’s always been some version of the split between what forms of literary expression are acceptable to whoever the cultural authorities of the moment happen to be and what forms lie beyond the pale. And some writers will take that distinction to heart. It’s there in Petrarch, writing his sonnets in his dialect of Italian and his work of more serious intent in Latin. The case of Petrarch, however, is instructive, since it’s those very poems in what was an extra-literary language that we now consider his crowning achievement; indeed, that give us what’s been the preeminent form of lyric poetry for the better part of the last millennium.
As for what happens specifically in the early part of this past century, it seems to me that it has something to do with the then-relatively-recent decision on the part of universities to study English language literature. I’m sure there were some writers who must have seemed obvious choices–Shakespeare, say–but when it came to selecting other writers, the choice appears often to have skewed towards those whose connection to classical traditions was fairly pronounced–Spenser, or Dryden. Although it took a while after that for university English departments to incorporate the study of contemporary writers into their curricula, I think something of this principle of selection must have carried over into their decisions. A writer such as T.S. Eliot, whose poetry is fundamentally about his relationship with the literatures of the past, would make an easy choice. A writer such as H.P. Lovecraft, whose fiction treats much of the same thematic material as Eliot’s, but who presents it in a very different way (one with its own traditions, to be sure, but outside those of the mainstream of the canon) would be equally easy to pass over. Given the extent to which the university was moving increasingly to the center of American and English intellectual and cultural life, what was happening in its classrooms had an increasing impact on the wider cultural scene, intersecting and no doubt reinforcing those preexisting distinctions between what’s literary and what’s popular.
Interestingly, my own limited experience suggests that, in a number of university literature programs across the U.S. and in Canada and the U.K., the split we’re discussing is having less operative force in terms of which works and writers are considered worthy of study. From what I can tell, where the division continues to hold most sway is in university creative writing programs, where to write outside the narrower definitions of canonical tradition is to court trouble.
Your work seems to pull from a lot of late romantic and modernist literature. Is this intentional on your part? Which writers do you think most inform your fiction?
I’m not sure it’s always intentional so much as it is inescapable. What I mean is, the vast majority of my study as an undergraduate and graduate student in English as been in the literature of the last couple of centuries. At times, I’ve focused more intently on one period or writer than another, and I’ve tried to read as widely outside this period as I’ve had time for, but I find myself always coming back to writers such as Henry James, and Dickens, and Faulkner (in part, to be be perfectly frank, because the first time I read them, they frustrated me, but in a way that refused to let me simply dismiss them). Because I keep returning to them in my reading, I think it’s no surprise that they should appear in my writing, so to speak, since we build what we write out of what we’ve read.
In terms of the writers who inform my work, I would be guilty of a serious sin of omission if I didn’t give all due credit to Stephen King and Peter Straub, who set me on the path to becoming a writer when I was a teenager and whose work continues to inspire me. I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read Straub’s Ghost Story and Shadowland, and a few years ago I devoted a not-insignificant amount of time to analyzing his Koko and Mystery. Early on, Faulkner was crucial to me, as were a number of writers of the American South, especially Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren. Hawthorne’s stories were, too, as was Melville’s Moby Dick. Throughout, I was developing an appreciation for Henry James’s work that would turn into a real love and admiration. This last decade or so, Dickens has come to mean a great deal to me, too.
Which writers who are not part of the US/UK canon do you think have had the most influence on your work?
I suppose you could include King and Straub on that list; though each has made inroads into the mainstream in the last few years. I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid, so the work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, and Marv Wolfman no doubt played an important role in the formation of my psyche; though I guess it was encountering Alan Moore’s work when he took over the Swamp Thing comic that really opened my eyes to the full range of possibilities open to a writer of any material in any medium. I also read a lot of Robert E. Howard’s work when I should have been paying attention to my fifth grade math teacher, and I can still find something compelling in his muscular narratives. To look in a wildly different direction, I was tremendously affected by my first encounter with Rilke’s poetry in my early twenties; I went through a couple of years when I tried to read as much of him as I possibly could. I take inspiration from those writers who are my contemporaries, from Laird Barron to Stephen Graham Jones to Sarah Langan (no relation, by the way) to Victor Lavalle to Paul Tremblay.
What do you make of the increasing number of weird/horror fiction writers with backgrounds in other genres, such as Stephen Graham Jones, whose first novel is an experimental literary novel, and Laird Barron, who also has worked as a poet?
Certainly, there’s a tradition of writers who have created significant bodies of weird fiction while also working in other genres; Henry James comes to mind, as does Guy de Maupassant. E.F. Benson is probably more widely known as the author of the Map and Lucia series than as the writer of some fairly potent horror stories. More recently, both Justin Cronin and Ben Percy have transitioned from writing fairly well-received literary novels to working with vampires and werewolves, respectively. No writing is wasted: whatever a writer learns working in one genre is bound to be of use when s/he moves to another. You can see this is the cases of both Stephen and Laird. Stephen loves to experiment with narrative convention, which gives you something like Demon Theory, or some of the stories in The Ones That Got Way. Laird’s language bears the hallmarks of a writer who pays minute attention to crafting his sentences. It’s for this reason that, when I teach creative writing, I ask my students to write in a variety of genres, no matter their long-term ambitions, and why I encourage them to maintain their contact with other forms of writing. The more you’ve written, the more you can write.
Does the literature of any other culture have a particularly strong effect on you?
Well, almost by accident, I’ve read a reasonable amount of French literature over the last few decades–almost all of it in translation–from the Song of Roland to a couple of Andrei Makine’s novels, with stops along the way for the drama of Racine, the fiction of Flaubert, Maupassant, and Camus, and the poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Valery, and Perse. Some of this had to do with all the British and American modernism I was reading, whose authors were constantly referring to Flaubert and Baudelaire. For something of the same reason, I read the nineteenth century Russian novelists, Dostoyevsky, in particular, but also some of Gogol’s stories, Leskov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. I’ve also spent time with that group of Latin American writers who were grouped under the umbrella of Magic Realism when I was in college: principally Borges, Fuentes, and Garcia Marquez.
Do you see any direct relationship between “Magic Realism” as understood in the English speaking world and Weird fiction? (I ask because, although the category is more contested in Latin America, there does seem to be some sort of aesthetic link.)
My knowledge of the full extent of writers who might be classified as practitioners of Magic Realism is considerably less than my knowledge of those who might be slotted under the Weird/Horror category, so I’m not sure how much insight I can offer. I do know that, in the case of someone like Borges, he counts both Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson among his influences, and of course he writes his famous story, “There Are More Things,” as a response to Lovecraft. Fuentes, as well, has credited Poe with exerting a formative power over his fiction, while his short novel, Aura, emerged in part as a response to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and his last novel published in English, Vlad, is a response to Stoker’s Dracula. (I’m on much less firm ground in discussing Garcia Marquez; though I wouldn’t be surprised to find Poe knocking around in some of his short stories and a book like Autumn of the Patriarch.) I wonder if Magic Realism and Weird/Horror fiction might be thought of as parallel trends, drawing on a similar constellation of writers, with important intersections but no less important differences?
Is there contemporary literature that has affected you strongly that you think would be unexpected, based on the work that you do as writer and professor?
I soaked up a lot of American literature during my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Some of it, say, the American Romantics (especially Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), would not come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows my work; nor would my affection for and debt to the fiction of Henry James, since I tend to wear it on my sleeve. I’m not sure that my affection for what I guess you could call the school of Hemingway, i.e. Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, and Richard Ford, would seem that apparent to my readers.
I actually do see some stories where the hardboiled influences you list could be seen. Do you think it is true that the line between literary writing and genre writing has become less pronounced, or do you think this distinction was always overstated? I am thinking, for example, of the seemingly increasing number of writers, like say Patrick Rothfuss, who have MFA’s.
I imagine some idea of literariness–which is to say, of written works to which a culture assigns especial value–has been present in most cultures, maybe all. What seems to have happened in the recent literary-critical history of the English-speaking world has been the conflation of that quality with specific kinds of written work, which is to say, with certain genres, such as the mimetic-naturalist novel of individual crisis. Every now and again, though, the line that demarcates the literary from the non-literary gets moved, sometimes in the case of entire forms (i.e. the novel, the comic book), more often in the case of individual writers (i.e. Lovecraft or Philip K. Dick). To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the exact mechanism of this movement is; though I suspect it has something to do with the accumulation of a sufficient mass of positive critical attention to a form or writer. The thing is, if your particular genre is on the right side of the literary/non-literary divide, then it’s easy to argue that the distinction has faded, or was never really that strong in the first place. If you’re on the opposite side of it, then it can display surprising force. I haven’t made any kind of formal survey, but from the writers I’ve talked to who hold MFA’s and work in genre fiction, it appears to be something of a challenge to earn the degree if you’re writing outside canonical tradition in its narrowest definition. I would guess that, for some of these writers, at least, earning the MFA has as much to do with securing future employment as it does anything.
Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
At this moment, there are a number of writers doing brilliant work in the field of Weird/Horror fiction. In case your readers are not familiar with all of them, I’d like to call a handful of their most recent works to their attention. Several are story collections: Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Richard Gavin’s At Fear’s Altar, Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire, Simon Strantzas’s Nightingale Songs, Molly Tanzer’s A Pretty Mouth, and Paul Tremblay’s In the Mean Time. Others are novels: Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child, Victor Lavalle’s The Devil in Silver, and S.P. Miskowski’s Knock Knock. Still more are anthologies: Joe Pulver’s and Simon Strantzas’s Shadows Edge. By no means is this list exhaustive; if anything, it’s woefully incomplete. But it should offer the interested reader a few avenues into what’s being done at the darker end of the literary spectrum.
That, and thanks very much for such a stimulating conversation.
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