The Supernatural Tale in Today’s World: John Kenny talks to R.B. Russell
Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
R.B. Russell is an English author, born in Sussex, who has a fondness for old books and vinyl records. Apart from Putting the Pieces in Place and Bloody Baudelaire, a further collection of tales, Literary Remains, was published by PS Publishing in 2010. Russell is co-proprietor of the independent publishing house Tartarus Press, and now lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his partner, the writer and publisher, Rosalie Parker, their son, and two cats. More on R.B. Russell can be found here.
John Kenny: Do you think the supernatural tale has changed at all since the days of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and others? Is there a place in the modern world for tales of the supernatural and macabre?
R.B. Russell: The supernatural tale has changed immeasurably. It is unthinkable that a writer working in any genre would be unaware of developments in literature generally, changes in society, etc. The supernatural tale has, perhaps, been even more affected than most genres. Developments in science, philosophy and psychology have pushed traditional supernatural themes to the furthest edges of human experience (without, I think, making them any the less fascinating.)
Since the late nineteenth century it has not been enough to simply describe supernatural phenomena and their effects on characters. In their best fiction Blackwood, Machen, Lovecraft and others presented the supernatural with reference to contemporary ideas of mysticism and the natural world, through philosophy and psychology, and even hard science. (Unfortunately, M.R. James doesn’t appear to have engaged with this, which is why I think he has been left behind in his own literary cul-de-sac.)
For fiction to be relevant it has to be contemporary, although that doesn’t mean that authors can’t return to ideas and themes associated with previous writers. However, they need to make it meaningful to a modern audience; otherwise they are simply offering, at best, a cosy thrill, or undertaking an academic exercise.
Of course, supernatural fiction does not have to reinterpret the hoary old themes of the past. Those very developments that have shone such a bright light on dark places previously thought to contain God, ghosts and monsters, have made us aware of even darker areas of both inner and outer space.
JK: In more modern times, by which I mean the last fifty to seventy years or so, there does seem to be less emphasis on distinctively definable supernatural phenomena and more of a focus on inner turmoil or distressed states of mind.
RBR: It is tempting today to suggest that manifestations of the supernatural, the mystical, etc, are the result of (at best) wilful ignorance of modern science, or (at worst) mental aberration. But this is just as absurd as an insistence that the supernatural is verifiable and real. There is so much that we can’t fully explain with recourse to science. The mind, however, is where we try and make sense of what we experience, and the mind is a mechanism that can’t always be trusted when under pressure. It is fascinating that we understand so much about the world around us, and yet know so little about our own mental processes. The mind is where the most extreme drama has always been played out (whatever is happening externally).
JK: Of the work featured in your collection Ghosts, the closest to a traditional ghost story is ‘In Hiding’. But there is always the possibility that it might all be in the head of the protagonist. The source of unease for the reader has shifted.
RBR: In that particular story I was interested in the way that we make assumptions, and tell ourselves stories to make sense of the inexplicable. I am fascinated by the way that apparently verifiable, physical evidence can be interpreted so widely by different people.
JK: I guess those are the cracks in the veneer of society where a tale of the supernatural can exist. The fact that we’re all individuals, with individual viewpoints, can leave things wide open to interpretation or attempts at rationalisation.
RBR: Yes. A few of my stories have been inspired by the fact that people can often have different, sometimes contradictory, interpretations of apparently straightforward events. Sometimes this can be explained away by emotion, expectations, prejudice, etc. At other times the answer lies in how the memory has processed that event over time. If the event is open to a supernatural interpretation, then it’s all the more difficult to get to the truth.
JK: A notable feature of your work is the quirky, obsessive or flawed nature of your characters: the obsessive collector in ‘Putting the Pieces in Place’, the outwardly confident architecture student in ‘There’s Nothing That I Wouldn’t Do’, the dispossessed author in ‘Eleanor’. A far cry from the de rigueur average Joe Soaps of most contemporary horror fiction.
RBR: Offering the reader ordinary, recognisable characters, often in everyday surroundings, can be a very powerful device for the presentation of the supernatural. These good honest, identifiable characters will interpret what has happened to them in a way that is entirely reasonable, reinforcing the belief in the mind of the reader that the story is ‘realistic’. The only flaw in this great idea is that there really aren’t any ordinary, everyday ‘Joe Soaps’ in this world. If you look closely at anyone you’ll find idiosyncrasies, and that we are all flawed. It is oddities that make us interesting, and bring characters to life, and is far more ‘realistic’ than attempting to create an ‘everyman’ character.
JK: Certainly this is the case with Jayne, the main character in ‘Dispossessed’, a highlight of the collection for me. Jayne’s ‘flaw’ is that she’s almost a non-person. Can you us a little about the genesis of Jayne and the story?
RBR: I’m really not at all sure where that story came from (they all have different sources of inspiration, and are written in different ways.). I seem to remember that the story of Jayne just tumbled out of my head. The idea is that she is one of those people who end up having decisions made for her by other people.
JK: Bloody Baudelaire, a novella originally published as a separate book and my favourite story in this collection, is dominated by the deeply disturbed and eccentric Miranda. Her justification for self-harm is as intriguing and thought-provoking as it is alarming. Do you do much in the way of research before sitting down to write or do insights into behaviour like that of Miranda and Jayne come from some inner sense of conviction or understanding?
RBR: A sketch for the character of Miranda was written many years ago, after I had met someone who was self-harming. The explanations they gave for their behaviour are those that Miranda gives. The character of Miranda has haunted me ever since that first sketch, and it wasn’t until late 2008 that circumstances all came together and Bloody Baudelaire was written.
I find it slightly unnerving that the elderly author in my story ‘Eleanor’ has created a character who he is very fond of, but who is taken over by others as she is transferred into other media. My Miranda character is in the process of being transferred to film, and I feel rather like that elderly author. My character is being taken away from me and altered. The real-life director of the film talks to me about Miranda as if he knows her well, and yet she’s different. I rather want to claim her back!
JK: At the same time, it must be a fascinating process. Can you tell us any more about the film? Is it feature length for TV or cinema release or a short movie? Did you have a hand in the screenplay?
RBR: It’s a US feature film with a budget of just over a million. That sounds impressive to me, but I’m told it must be defined as a ‘low-budget’ film. There have been a few delays, but the cameras are meant to start rolling in June… It came about through the enthusiasm of Todd Niemi, a script-writer I know who asked to adapt my story. He did the initial hard work, and then we discussed and jointly tweaked it until we were both happy with the script. It was optioned by the director/producer Francisco Orvañanos back in 2011. Inevitably the script has since changed, as has the title–it now has the working title Backgammon. Nevertheless, it’ll be fascinating to find out how it looks on the big screen. (http://www.backgammonfilm.com/)
JK: You’re also involved with running Tartarus Press, which specialises in the publication of contemporary, literary strange/supernatural fiction. Why did you set it up and how did you go about getting things off the ground?
RBR: I set up Tartarus in 1990, initially as a means of publishing writings by and about Arthur Machen. It was a hobby that got out of hand, and for some years was subsidised by our Guide to First Edition Prices. My partner, Rosalie, started working for Tartarus alongside me in 1998. By that time we had moved on to also publish books by writers associated with Machen, and a number of contemporary authors. We still publish classic writers of the supernatural like L.P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, E.T.A. Hoffman and others, but discovering and publishing contemporary authors is perhaps even more satisfying. We’ve published first collections by a number of people with a high profile in the genre, from Rhys Hughes, Mark Samuels and Mark Valentine, through to relative newcomers Angela Slatter, Michael Reynier and Jason A. Wyckoff. Early collections by Quentin S. Crisp and Simon Strantzas also appeared under our imprint.
JK: Is Tartarus a full-time job now, with some time devoted to your writing? Or do you still have to have a ‘proper’ day job?
RBR: Yes, Tartarus is now a full-time job for both me and Rosalie–we haven’t had a ‘proper job’ for some years. As for the writing–we both do that in our spare time.
JK: Do you think small presses have a vital function in today’s publishing world, in that they can operate on smaller scales and promote authors and work bigger publishers wouldn’t look at?
RBR: Small presses have always fulfilled that function, and hopefully always will. I don’t believe that large commercial publishers are more risk averse, but they can’t make financial sense of smaller markets.
JK: You have developed a good partnership with Swan River Press on a couple of projects. Do you think this is the way forward for small presses?
RBR: It’s been great working with Brian. He’s a really nice fellow with great taste! Over the years we’ve linked up with various publishers, including Pete and Nicky Crowther at PS, David Tibet at Durtro, Mark Valentine and Roger Dobson at Caermaen, and George Locke at Ferret Fantasy. A flourishing and vibrant small press scene is in the interests of everyone, not just publishers, but writers and readers.
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