Monday, March 31, 2014

Table of contents - "Year's Best Weird Fiction" edited by Laird Barron

Weird fiction is thriving lately and with more gifted writers approaching the sub-genre it gains more coverage and audience with each passing year. It was a matter of time until a year’s best collection of weird short stories would be published and it happens starting this year, when the first edition of “Year’s Best Weird Fiction” will be released on August. And this first “Year’s Best Weird Fiction” collection already promises plenty of good things, it is edited by Laird Barron, one of the modern masters of speculative fiction, it is published by Undertow Publications, responsible for the excellent “Shadows & Tall Trees” magazine, and features some great names on its inaugural table of contents. All topped with a cover artwork made by Santiago Caruso, an authority of the visual side of the weird.

“Success” by Michael Blumlein (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2013)
“Like Feather, Like Bone” by Kristi DeMeester (Shimmer #17)
“A Terror” by Jeffrey Ford (, July 2013)
“The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass” by John R. Fultz (Fungi #21)
“A Cavern of Redbrick” by Richard Gavin (Shadows & Tall Trees #5)
“The Krakatoan” by Maria Dahvana Headley (Nightmare Magazine, July 2013/“The Lowest Heaven” edited by Anne C. Perry & Jared Shurin)
“Bor Urus” by John Langan (“Shadow’s Edge” edited by Simon Strantzas)
“Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn (“The Grimscribe’s Puppets” edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.)
“Eyes Exchange Bank” by Scott Nicolay (“The Grimscribe’s Puppets” edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.)
“A Quest of Dream” by W.H. Pugmire (“Bohemians of Sesqua Valley”)
“(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror” by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. (Lovecraft eZine #28)
“Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” by A.C. Wise (Ideomancer Vol. 12 Issue 2)
“The Year of the Rat” by Chen Quifan (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2013)
“Fox into Lady” by Anne-Sylvie Salzman (“Darkscapes”)
“Olimpia’s Ghost” by Sofia Samatar (Phantom Drift #3)
"The Nineteenth Step" by Simon Strantzas (“Shadows Edge” edited by Simon Strantzas)
“The Girl in the Blue Coat” by Anna Taborska (“Exotic Gothic 5, Vol. 1” edited by Danel Olson)
“In Limbo” by Jeffrey Thomas (“Worship the Night”)
“Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck (Shadows & Tall Trees #5)
“Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” by Paul Tremblay (Bourbon Penn #8)
“No Breather in the World But Thee” by Jeff VanderMeer (Nightmare Magazine, March 2013)
“Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?” by Damien Angelica Walters (Shock Totem #7)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cover art - "The Lady" by K.V. Johansen & "The Shotgun Arcana" by R.S. Belcher

If it was possible I would love to have a room decorated with the artworks of Raymond Swanland. I affirmed my admiration of Raymond Swanland’s exceptional talent on plenty of occasions before and I’ll repeat it with every chance I get, although lately I find myself more often speechless and left in mute reverence before his wonderful art. As is the case with the latest two examples, the book covers of K.V. Johansen’s “The Lady” (Pyr Books) and R.S. Belcher’s “The Shotgun Arcana” (Tor Books). Both writers benefited from the artwork of Raymond Swanland on their book covers before, K.V. Johansen on “Blackdog” and “The Leopard”, the first novel in the “Marakand” series, R.S. Belcher on “The Six Gun Tarot”, the prequel novel of “The Shotgun Aracana”, so these two new ones are a welcomed continuation. Not only that, after all only a glimpse of these two covers makes my fingers twitchy with the desire to hold the books and look closer at their covers and makes my wish to dig within the pages of the said books stronger. I simply cannot offer much resistance to Raymond Swanland’s artworks.

Possessed by a ghost who feeds on death, the undying assassin Ahjvar the Leopard has been captured by the Lady of Marakand, enslaved by necromancy to be captain of her Red Masks. His shield-bearer Ghu, a former slave with an uncanny ability to free the captive dead, follows Ahjvar into the war-torn lands of the Duina Catairna to release him, even if that means destroying what is left of Ahj's tormented soul.
Deyandara, the last surviving heir of the Catairnan queen, rides into a land ravaged by disease and war, seeking the allies she abandoned months before, though they have no hope of standing against the army led by the invulnerable Red Masks of Marakand and the divine terror of the Lady.
In the city of Marakand, former enemies ally and old friends seek one another's deaths as loyalists of the entombed gods Gurhan and Ilbialla raise a revolt, spearheaded by the Grasslander wizard Ivah, the shapeshifting Blackdog, and the bear-demon Mikki. The Lady's defenses are not easily breached, though, and the one enemy who might withstand her, the Northron wanderer Moth, bearer of the sword Lakkariss, has vanished.

R. S. Belcher's debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was enthusiastically greeted by critics and readers, who praised its wildly inventive mixture of dark fantasy, steampunk, and the Wild West. Now Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, a bustling frontier town that hides more than its fair share of unnatural secrets.
1870. A haven for the blessed and the damned, including a fallen angel, a mad scientist, a pirate queen, and a deputy who is kin to coyotes, Golgotha has come through many nightmarish trials, but now an army of thirty-two outlaws, lunatics, serial killers, and cannibals are converging on the town, drawn by a grisly relic that dates back to the Donner Party...and the dawn of humanity.
Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies already have their hands full dealing with train robbers, a mysterious series of brutal murders, and the usual outbreaks of weirdness.  But with thirty-two of the most vicious killers on Earth riding into Golgotha in just a few day's time, the town and its people will be tested as never before - and some of them will never be the same.
The Shotgun Arcana is even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than The Six-Gun Tarot, and confirms R. S. Belcher's status as a rising star.

Monday, March 24, 2014

6 Years

6 years of blogging, 1022 posts, 159 reviews, 65 interviews. Sometimes it feels like I’ve started Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews only yesterday, other times like it happened such a long time ago. But I guess that is a general characteristic of time, or more exactly of its relativity, so that is nothing new. The certain thing is that the experience of these 6 years has been nothing but the best. The way I read changed dramatically and although I tend to be more demanding with the books I start in most cases their reading is more rewarding than before. I’ve experienced some amazing things because of this blog, things that otherwise would have been impossible, but above all, it gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people, who for certain made my life far richer than before. Sure, time again has something to do with the running of things around here, recently and more often I was not able to find the necessary space to elbow my reviews and interviews, my plans for this blog are still standing but are on hold for the time being due to the same reason, sometimes I feel drained or lazy and because of this the posts might not be as frequent as I would like them to be. Therefore I cannot predict what the future would bring, sometimes I wish I could, but one thing is clear, as long as I enjoy writing here on Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews this blog will exist. So let’ kick the 7th year off.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cover art - "Scourge of the Betrayer" by Jeff Salyards (French edition)

Marc Simonetti is not a secret anymore, his reputation spread worldwide over the past several years. It is only just for things to be this way, Marc Simonetti proved his great talent on plenty of occasions with his paintings, works that also embellished the covers of books signed by Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss and published in France, Brazil or United States, just to give a few examples. Personally, I am always happy to see a new cover receiving life out of Marc Simonetti’s brushes, even more so when the book in question is one I enjoyed a fair bit. As it is the case with Jeff Salyards“Scourge of the Betrayer”, the first novel in the “Bloodsounder’s Arc” series. However, as much as I liked Jeff Salyards’ novel I couldn’t find equal excitement about its original cover, the artwork was merely all right for me. I cannot say the same about the French edition though, Marc Simonetti, once again responsible for a very attractive book cover, captured perfectly the atmosphere of “Scourge of the Betrayer”, the vicious flails, a solid presence but keeping something to themselves, as they do within the pages of the novel, the chronicle, written and reflected in blood and violence, and the teasing hints born out of the mirrored image. Dark and menacing, in my opinion this cover is the perfect match for Jeff Salyards’ “Scourge of the Betrayer”. And my interest in the upcoming second novel of the “Bloodsounder’s Arc” series, “Veil of the Deserters”, is now accompanied by my curiosity in how a cover for the French edition of Jeff Salyards’ sophomore book would look like.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Table of contents - “Best of Mystery & Horror #1” edited by Mircea Pricăjan

I find myself yet again owning a debt in reviews for some of the books I read recently and one such title for which I feel even sadder not being able to properly put my thoughts on the paper yet is A.R. Deleanu’s collections of stories, “Achluophobia, 10 Macabre Stories”. The main reason for feeling such sorrow because of this overdue review is that I don’t get many chances to read Romanian horror. Not because I am not willing to offer it my time and energy, but because its presence on the Romanian literature is scarce, to put it light. Considering once more the extremely rich vein of inspiration found within our folklore, mythology, history and modern society it is an issue that nudges me very often nowadays. However, there are reasons of optimism and signs of health for this genre, after all we’ve seen here published lately an excellent short novel with elements of supernatural and horror, “The Chocolate Testament” by Marian Coman, a gothic novel, “…and at the end remained the nightmare” by Oliviu Crâznic, a couple of themed anthologies such as “Beyond the Night: 12 Faces of the Gothic” edited by the same Oliviu Crâznic and “Zombies, The Book of Living Dead” edited by Mircea Pricăjan and the constant appearance of the online magazine, Revista de suspans (The Suspense Magazine), run also by Mircea Pricăjan, just to name those that come immediately into mind. Covering mystery, crime and horror it is always a delight to see Revista de suspans releasing a new issue, and I am not saying that because I assist this magazine at its editorial work, but because it offers a proper medium for the Romanian horror genre and writers. From the works published within the virtual pages of Revista de suspans comes a new exciting title, “Best of Mystery & Horror #1”, edited by Mircea Pricăjan and released by a bold new Romanian publisher, Herg Benet. Gathering 16 stories from the 105 published in the first 12 issues of Revista de suspans “Best of Mystery & Horror #1” brings forth some of the established and young voices of the Romanian genre literature tackling the suspense in its many forms. It is the perfect initiative, and again my opinion is not influenced by my collaboration with Mircea Pricăjan, for offering further hope to the Romanian horror genre. And I do have hope that this volume of best mystery and horror short fiction is the first of many.

Table of contents (in alphabetic order by author):

“Cuvânt înainte” (Foreword) by Mircea Pricăjan
“Credit restant” (Bad Debt) by Diana Alzner
“Răzbunarea mută” (The Mute Revenge) by Cezarina Anghilac
“A doua moarte a domnului Michael Conrad” (The Second Death of Mister Michael Conrad) by George Arion
“Proprietarul” (The Owner) by Raluca Băceanu
“Prin grele văluri de visare” (Through Heavy Shrouds of Dreaming) by Alexandru Dan
“Stingerea” (The Curfew) by Marian Dumitrașcu
“Păpușa” (The Doll) by Cătălina Fometici
“Ultimul zbor” (The Last Flight) by Teodora Gheorghe
“Un crâmpei de lumină” (A Scrap of Light) by Lena Kart
“Spaima” (The Dread) by Cristina Nemerovschi
“Omul cu șobolani sub piele” (The Man With Rats Under His Skin) by Alexandra Niculae
“Scurtă întâlnire” (Short Meeting) by Liviu Radu
“Vino la mine” (Come to Me) by Radu Romaniuc
“Arhanghelul” (The Archangel) by Paul Tudor
“Înainte să putrezească totul” (Before Everything Rots) by Felix Tzele
“Iluminare” (Illumination) by Ioana Vișan

Friday, March 14, 2014

Title spotlight - "Last Year, When We Were Young" by Andrew J. McKiernan

“Scenes from the Second Storey”, Amanda Pillar and Pete Kempshall’s anthology published by Morrigan Books in 2011, is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in the past several years. Born as a tribute for the music album “Scenes from the Second Storey” of the alternative rock band The God Machine the eponymous anthology featured some very strong stories from some very talented and powerful writers. Among them, Andrew J. McKiernan, who at the time of my reading of “Scenes from the Second Storey” was a mystery to me. However, his story, “The Desert Song”, a mix of post-apocalyptic setting, zombie/vampire fiction and spaghetti western to the best effect, opened my eyes to and made me very interested in Andrew J. McKiernan’s works. So, since then I was on scouting duty for more of his stories, enjoying each opportunity to read the discovered tales, “Calliope: A Steam Romance”, “All the Clowns in Clowntown”, “The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim” or “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know”. And each new story I read was one more step taken by Andrew J. McKiernan in becoming one of my favorite writers. But as pleasant and rewarding as it is the search for new stories from favorite writers I find the benefits of a single author collections a bit more satisfying. As is the case with Andrew J. McKiernan’s debut collection, “Last Year, When We Were Young”. I was thrilled to see Andrew J. McKiernan’s stories gathered for the first time in a volume, not because I didn’t enjoy searching for them, but because as satisfying as the rewards offered by these tales were sometimes for me it was very frustrating to learn of one of his stories and not to be able to have access to it. Still, that does not remain the only reason for my delight, because after all, I am always happy when I can take a book by a favorite writer from the shelves of my personal library wherever I feel like doing so. And that is exactly where Andrew J. McKiernan’s collection of short stories is going when Satalyte Publishing is releasing “Last Year, When We Were Young” later this year.

The debut collection from multi-award nominated author Andrew J McKiernan brings together 14 of his previously published short stories and novelettes, plus two brand new tales unique to the collection.
Often defying conventions of genre and style, these stories range from fantasy and steampunk to science fiction and horror, but always with an edge sharper than a razor and darker than a night on Neptune.
From the darkly hilarious "All the Clowns in Clowntown" to the heart-breakingly disturbing title story, the collection pulls no punches. Delving deep into what scares us most, McKiernan's tales are by turns heartfelt and gut-wrenching.
With an Introduction by Will Elliott, Last Year, When We Were Young is a collection of horror and dark fantasy from one of Australia's finest new authors that should not be missed.

Table of Contents (tentative):

“The Memory of Water”
“All the Clowns in Clowntown”
“White Lines, White Crosses”
“Love Death”
“The Dumbshow”
“The Message”
“Calliope: A Steam Romance”
“The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim”
“Torch Song”
“A Prayer for Lazarus” (new)
“The Haunting that Jack Built”
“They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know”
“The Desert Song”
“The Wanderer in the Darkness”
“Last Year, When We Were Young” (new)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

“Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”) by Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu

“Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”)
by Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu
Publisher: Nemira
The review is based on a bought copy of the book

Mystery, noir and crime fiction have a permanent place within my heart and the reason for this fact cannot be owned exclusively on the value of the writers, but also on the more intimate and personal experience of my childhood and teenage years. Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc, Dashiell Hammett or Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu offered countless of adventurous hours spent in the company of detectives, investigators or, why not, gentlemen thieves. The aura of the mystery was sometimes augmented by the clandestine reading by hiding the books underneath physics or chemistry school-books while I was supposed to do my homework. I believe I love Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu just a bit more because her novels have ended more often under the homework book than those of other writers. And “Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”) was the first such investigation that left the formulas and equations forgotten.

I was delighted when Nemira Publishing House decided to re-print Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu’s novels and even more thrilled when the collection of hardback editions of these books started with “Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”). With a feeling of nostalgia and not only, I followed once again the police officer Ştefan Anghel on his long awaited holiday. In hope of finding the most needed rest Ştefan Anghel goes to an isolated mountain chalet, “Dor de munte”, but soon after he receives an unsigned letter proclaiming a soon to happen crime and when a murder and suicide take place his holiday is quickly forgotten. And Ştefan Anghel returns to what he does best, solving mysteries.

Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu is named the Romanian Agatha Christie, but in “Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”) she twists one of Christie’s hallmarks into her own particular way. If in plenty of Agatha Christie’s novels the detective gathered the suspects into one room, explaining the course of the investigation and the guilty, Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu goes into reverse, she gathers the cast of characters of “Death Signs Indecipherable” (“Moartea semnează indescifrabil”) into one place at the beginning of the novel, isolating them further when the mountain chalet’s phone lines are cut off and a storm makes all the access roads impracticable. This approach sets into motion the wheels of a very interesting mechanism, a claustrophobic atmosphere, the presence of constant threat and the challenge thrown in the path of the detective. It catches the characters and readers alike in a web of tangled threads. If you like, it is a situation similar to the board game “Cluedo”, or the old Romanian version “Enigma”, if you prefer, three cards are placed face down in the middle of the table, the killer, the murder weapon and the location of the crime, remaining for the players to discover the identity of those cards through deductive reasoning. The difference is that in “Death Signs Indecipherable” the weapon and location are known, the murderer is discovered halfway through the novel by Ştefan Anghel, without accusing him or revealing his identity to the reader, only the motive of the crime remaining to be established.

If the first half of the novel is full of tension, with plenty of suspenseful and perilous moments, the second is an expression of a full scale police investigation, with inquiries into the victims’ past, discussions both inquisitive and misleading for the killer and a permanent surveillance of the murderer so he cannot slip through police’s fingers before his motives are discovered. This second part is perfectly described by Ştefan Anghel’s superior, colonel Tunsu:

“Try to remember from crime fiction the detective’s reasoning and not the rooftop chases”. (“Încercaţi să reţineţi din literatura poliţistă raţionamentele detectivului și nu goana pe acoperișuri.”)

Still, after witnessing the entire deduction process the readers are awarded with a heart-pounding action finale. It is a very nice way for Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu to draw the curtain over the story.

Ştefan Anghel might not be the charismatic and memorable detective in the style of Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe but he gets the job done. And his story “Death Signs Indecipherable” is a testimony of Rodica Ojog-Brașoveanu’s unique place within crime fiction and not in the least as a comparison with other such writers.

Monday, March 10, 2014

100 Bloody Acres

“100 Bloody Acres” (Australia, 2012)
Directed by Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes
Written by Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes
Starring: Damon Herriman, Angus Sampson, Anna McGahan, Oliver Ackland, Jamie Kristian

Horror-comedy is a concept I was never able to fully grasp, there is something quite not right with this association of genres in my mind. Perfectly aware of the grey area of things and with a known preference for boundaries being disrespected in other areas I strangely found myself unable to overcome a preconceived idea about this mash up of genres. However, since preconceived ideas are as bad as restricting creativeness to certain limits I promised myself to take the first opportunity to put some proper support behind my reluctance towards the concept or to finally question my opinion. The first chance, the debut feature film of brothers Cairnes, Cameron and Colin, “100 Bloody Acres”.

Three youngsters on their way to a music festival end up stranded on a back road when their car breaks down. Soon they are picked up by Reg Morgan driving a delivery truck on the route. Reg and his brother Lindsay are running an organic fertilizer business, commerce that became thriving when they discovered and used a new, secret ingredient, roadkill and car-crash victims. Through a comedy of errors the three youngsters, Sophie, James and Wesley, find themselves on the Morgan brothers’ farm fighting to escape the meat grinder.

“100 Bloody Acres” starts in playful tone and keeps the initial line throughout the entire story. In fact, the comedy part has precedence over the horror elements, but both are very well assembled and their combination is for the best effect. Body and road horror and situation and error comedy are mixed in a concoction for the entire satisfaction and joy of the viewer. Add to the blend some corny country music and the result is even better. The isolation of the setting, enhanced by the sense of small community inflicted by the interaction between the Morgan brothers and the side characters, the gory aspects and the body parts flying around send a feeling of uneasiness for the viewer, but without leaving an unpleasant aftertaste after them. And all the while the humor kicks only in the right places, the lines do not feel even once forced and “100 Bloody Acres” doesn’t leave the impression of chasing desperately for laughs, all the cogwheels of the mixed elements being set into perfect motion with great ability by Cameron and Colin Cairnes.

The entire assembly is supported by authentic characters, distinguishable personalities that feel real and full of vitality. Reg Morgan (Damon Herriman) is a subdued character, under the shadow of his brother, the ferocious looking and gruff Lindsay (Angus Sampson). The relationship between the brothers is one of movie’s dynamics, the connection between the two shifts and changes and the balance of power is put to doubt. Sophie (Anna McGahan), James (Oliver Ackland) and Wesley (Jamie Kristian) are caught in a love triangle and this situation comes into open and is confronted in the most awkward instance, one that also creates the most hilarious circumstances. These three characters suffer changes from the initial starting point as well, all of their demeanor is affected by the events surrounding them. There is nothing standard in their development.

I cannot recall a recent time when I had so much fun with a comedy. All right, “100 Bloody Acres” didn’t make me clutch my stomach because of too much laughter and it is a movie a little gory and bizarre, but it is a movie executed very well and it grew in my heart with each frame. I am convinced that every viewer willing to give “100 Bloody Acres” a chance would find a reward within the brothers Cairnes’ movie. But don’t take my word for it, because after all, “that’s a Morgan Brothers guarantee”.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Interview with Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author, editor, and doctor of medieval studies. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and have been reprinted in several Year's Best anthologies. Her debut collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side” (ChiZine Publications, 2012) was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was short-listed for the 2013 Aurora Award by the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also published two volumes of poetry, “Skeleton Leaves” (Kelp Queen Press, 2011), winner of the Aurora Award in 2012 and nominated for the Rhysling Award, and “The Sex Lives of Monsters” (Kelp Queen Press, 2013), nominated for the Bram Stoker Award this year. Helen Marshall’s second collection of short stories, “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”, will be released on fall of this year by ChiZine Publications.

Mihai A: Thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
I’ll start by quoting from one of your interviews, “When I was a kid I genuinely thought everyone who wrote books had died a long time ago. Like the dinosaurs. I had never seen a writer. I figured people didn’t write books anymore.” Since this didn’t put you off writing may I ask what determined the start of your writing career? When did you put the pen on paper with the goal of writing fiction?
Helen Marshall: My writing, as in most cases, came from reading. I grew up with my nose buried in a book such that I remember, quite vividly, that in Grade One my primary school teacher asked the other children to become my friends—sorry, this is quite sad as I recount it!—but I wasn’t particularly interested: I was happy with the books. As I read more I began to write. Poetry at first, but then short stories as I grew older. In high school, my mother arranged for a family friend, Jeff Fitzgerald, to start working with me on my writing. He had published a few short stories, and he was the first person to help me put together a manuscript submission: a story called “The Deep” about two university students who go searching for the lost land of Lyonesse—God, apparently I still have it on my computer—and it ends very tragically (so I thought) with the two of them drowning. Needless to say, it was rejected. The second person who helped me was a fellow named Ben Trafford, and I can’t say there was anything special about the conversation itself. I was in university, struggling to keep writing while I continued with my studies. I asked him how one becomes a published writer, and he said something along the lines of this: “You just do it.” And he was right: that’s when I realized there wasn’t a particular path to success, you just start doing it. No one will ever invite you to be a writer. No one hands it to you. You just go out and start doing it. 

Mihai A: From the long dead writers who inspired and influenced your writing? How about the living ones?
Helen Marshall: I read fantasy predominantly as I was growing up (as well as an assortment of books on Norse, Celtic, Greek and Roman mythology), and I think my biggest influences back then were probably Neil Gaiman who wrote the first short stories I ever read, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles de Lint, and Peter Beagle. When I first read them, I just assumed they were all dead (sorry!), but I remember being thrilled to discover that Guy Kay lived in Toronto. Toronto! I knew where that was! I had been there! Afterward, whenever, as a kid, I visited the city I always secretly hoped I would see him. Interestingly, when I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I ended up living quite near to him, and so we did meet for coffee from time to time.
One of my biggest influences in recent years, however, is Robert Shearman, whose work is very clever and blackly funny. When I first read his collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, something chimed in my head. I realized I could write stories from my own perspective, about my own emotional reactions, struggles, passions, and kinks. I realized I could be funny—but my own kind of funny. And weird. And sad. It is strange that someone else’s writing showed me how to develop my own kind of internal honesty, but it did.
Throughout my university career, I became more and more interested in dead writers, particularly those of the medieval period: the Gawain poet, Christine di Pizan, a whole load of anonymous writers, and of course, Geoffrey Chaucer. One of the things I love about reading medieval works is that sometimes you encounter a note from the author saying something like, “Pray for me when I am dead” or “Please correct this work”. Because despite the fact that these writers lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, they could envision their own death and could imagine some sort of place in history for themselves. They could envision a time when their writing would be copied and re-copied. And, really, they are still talking to us. I find those moments lend a kind of immediacy to their work that bridges the gap in years. It makes them seem peculiarly human, and that’s important because it is very easy to believe the people who lived hundreds of years ago were intrinsically different than us.

Mihai A: You have a PhD in medieval studies, but is the decision of pursuing this career related in any way to your love for fiction and books or it remains of strictly academic interest? Is the attention required by medieval manuscripts reflected on your writing and editing?
Helen Marshall: The question of how I balance my academic work and my fiction work is an interesting one, and it is something I continue to juggle and debate with myself on an ongoing basis. I like to think I draw inspiration from my academic work, which I bring to my creative writing. Hair Side, Flesh Side is a perfect example of that: many of the stories were inspired by the love of history my work has fostered in me, and a number of the stories themselves—such as “Blessed” where a girl receives the body of Saint Lucia of Syracuse for her birthday—really came directly out of my research. There’s so much odd minutiae you come across when studying the Middle Ages, odd beliefs, strange ritual elements and the like, that haven’t been mined so heavily despite the boatloads of European-inspired epic fantasies out there. There’s also an enormous frisson that comes from participating in the Oxford-Cambridge intellectual tradition: M. R. James wrote his ghost stories while preparing catalogues of medieval English manuscripts I still use; Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings while studying the Northern dialect play in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale; C. S. Lewis composed The Chronicles of Narnia while lecturing on medieval romance and allegory. There’s a fine tradition here.
But in many ways writing and research are very different tasks. When researching, I try to hold the object of study very closely so that I can see all of its minute details. I come to the truths I want to write about by way of facts and grounded hypothesis. When I write, I deliberately hold the object of narration, which is frequently grounded in some part of my real life, at a distance so that it grows fuzzy in my mind. This allows me to lie about it more effectively. And that’s a big difference, I think, the impulse to discover facts and the impulse to lie outrageously—I try to keep them separate!

MA: Did it happen for something you discovered in a medieval manuscript to become part of a subject of your fiction? Can it be said that the dark characteristics of Medieval Ages, such as violence, plague or poverty, have also an influence on your fiction?
HM: I have always wanted to discover something in a medieval manuscript that would be part of my fiction, but, for some reason, it never quite works out that way. In part, I think, because of the warring impulses I spoke of above. But your second question, about the dark characteristics of the Medieval Ages, is probably closer to the mark. Studying history gives me a sense of a wider perspective. I’ve said before that history is something like a horror story: everyone dies at the end. And as a result a large amount of my fiction is about how we balance our immediate sense of ourselves as living, breathing, loving individuals against the knowledge of our insignificance in terms of a larger narrative. I find myself returning to that question over and over again. In Hair Side, Flesh Side, the question manifested itself in terms of the value of artistic endeavor and the way we relate specifically to historical objects. In my second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, the question manifests itself in terms of the personal legacies we leave behind for our children.

MA: Is this also one of the reasons for chosing to approach the dark side of Peter Pan’s story in your debut poetry collection “Skeleton Leaves”? What are the other motives that led to a deeper exploration of the Peter Pan myth?
HM: Truthfully, Peter Pan is one of those stories that has so much lurking beneath the surface, so much deeply concealed tension and repressed feeling, that it took very little work on my part to expose some of it. I’ve always been fascinated by Peter Pan as a character: this utterly sociopathic personality whom Wendy finds irresistible. What I find interesting about him is that J. M. Barrie simultaneously casts him as a figure of death, willing to kill any of the Lost Boys who get too old for him, and as the ultimate figure of life and eternal youth. It’s an intriguing contradiction, and ultimately a frightening one. Also, I suppose, I quite like the image of kids as happy, little psychopaths—I’m not sure I believe it entirely, but I like playing with the connection between innocence and moral ignorance. In one story for my new collection, entitled “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects,” a young girl decides to practice being a mother by adopting two cans of tomato soup, one of whom she rolls down the stairs and eventually eats. It’s probably one of my most bizarre—and funny!—stories, but it comes out of that question of what it means for a child to try to come to an understanding of how the world works.

MA: With more modern stories reinterpreting the classical fairy tales are you tempted to offer your own version of such tales, besides Peter Pan, in the future? What would be the fairy tales with the most appeal to you for a reinterpretation?
HM: I’ve just finished writing a short story called “Ship House” for the new collection, which centers around a young woman who returns to her family home in South Africa in order to convince her mother, who appears to be developing Alzheimer’s, to pack up her belongings and move somewhere safer. There, she discovers the two halves of Rumpelstiltskin (recall: he tears himself in half at the end of the fairy tale!) in the cellar beneath the house. It is a very strange story, and also a deeply personal one, as it weaves together distorted pieces of my own family history with this larger mythic presence. It is also a story about how, generations down the line, one deals with the uncomfortable and compromised history that emerges from living in a place like South Africa and having benefited, even unknowingly, from one’s position. I like the idea of dealing with Rumpelstiltskin as this malignant secret that has been swept under the carpet, that everyone in the family knows about, but no one is willing to talk about.

MA: Although “Skeleton Leaves” offers a more sinister and dangerous version of Peter Pan’s story I understand that when some of the stories from your collection “Hair Side, Flesh Side” were labeled horror you have been surprised to some extent. Do you think that your collection, despite its obvious literary qualities, failed to reach more readers just because it is labeled as horror? Are you, as a writer, perceived differently just because you write horror and weird fiction?
HM: This is a tricky question: initially, I was surprised about being labeled a horror writer because, in my head, many of the stories are more absurdist than genuinely horrific. Also, as a child I had a strong aversion to horror: I couldn’t stomach it in the least. Everything scared me. The only horror I had read, previous to writing Hair Side, Flesh Side, were the books I was editing for ChiZine Publications, and those books were strange and dark but very few of them were what I considered to be outright horror. But now I find that it is exactly those things that provoked the strongest reaction from me, that I now mine for writing material—so in that sense, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of being called a horror writer. I’ve read much more widely in the genre—Stephen King has become a huge influence recently, not necessarily for his horror, but for his intensely likable narrators—but I still don’t know that I’m a horror writer per se, because I think if we take that old adage that horror is an emotion, not a genre, then I’m often trying to convey multiple emotions at once. Rarely is fear the predominant emotion I’d like my readers to take away with them. But that might just be splitting hairs: I find that there is a great deal of interesting writing occurring that combines horror and literary sensibilities. Nathan Ballingrud leaps to mind as one of the best in recent years. But more than that, I think horror fiction has a tremendous amount to offer literary fiction in that it is, as Kim Newman says, the art of going too far. It is—or it can be—a genre without limits. That’s very appealing.

MA: Do you consider that your fiction belongs strictly to one particular genre? How important is for a writer to step outside one genre in order to be original and find a personal style?
HM: My fiction moves all over the place, I think, because as a reader I read whatever comes to hand. I read lots of literary fiction because I find the attention to style, voice and form often prompts me to push myself in new directions. To make my words, and my sentences, work harder. But, at the same time, I like writing that pushes at and breaks the boundaries of realism: I like surprises. I love any moment that causes me to laugh with delight because something happens that is entirely unexpected but also entirely suited to the story. And I get bored very quickly, which means that I often jump around from style to style in what I read and what I write, in the hopes of surprising myself. Other writers prefer to develop a more consistent style, and that’s their prerogative—I hardly hold it against them!—but I like the freedom to do something completely different, to jump traditions, and to throw different elements of different traditions together. My thesis adviser once called me a “magpie theorist” which, in that context, was not necessarily a good thing: but when it comes to fiction I find the magpie tendency to pick up anything shiny to be quite helpful. It is also one reason why I do not necessarily like “reading the field” in its totality: I don’t necessarily want to follow too closely what writers similar to me are doing, I’d rather find something very different and sprint off in that direction.

MA: You published so far two volumes of poetry, “Skeleton Leave” and “The Sex Lives of Monsters”, and a collection of short stories, “Hair Side, Flesh Side”. With which one do you feel more comfortable? Did you start writing longer fiction already or would you approach a novel format soon?
HM: I’ve found that poetry and short fiction accomplish different things. Poetry often gives you a single moment, beautifully crystallized, a single gut punch. Short fiction gives you more space to slap your reader around a little bit, work them over, before you get to the knock out stage. I like both forms, but my interest, right now, is in fiction in part because I like the process of fleshing out quirky ideas and seeing where they will take me. Length changes what you can do with an idea. I’m beginning work on a novel at the moment called “Icarus Kids” in which children begin to come back from the dead. With wings. And while it might start off sounding a bit like a zombie story, really, it’s about death as transformation, and the grief of the people who get left behind. What I’ve found when writing the novel, however, is that the deeper I explore the idea, the more the narrative shifts toward realism—that is, I prefer to develop the human consequences of the idea rather than elaborating upon the central premise itself.

MA: Can the writing of poetry give more depth to a writer’s prose? Can the experience of writing poetry have an influence on the prose of a writer, making it more beautiful, compact and effective?
HM: Whenever I am struggling to get into the right headspace to write fiction, reading poetry is the perfect cure. I heard an excellent quotation from Dan Paterson at a lecture yesterday, that sums up my feelings on poetry:
“Poetry is a dark art, a form of magic, because it tries to change the way we perceive the world. That is to say that it aims to make the texture of our perception malleable…by seeding and planting things in the memory of the reader with such force and insidious originality that they cannot be deprogrammed.”
What I like about poetry is that it forces you to try to bring a reader to a certain place, or a certain emotion, by subtle and less straightforward strategies: through language, seeded imagery, texture, voice—and only lastly by means of narrative. Poetry works like a magic trick. It allows you to pull off certain effects that appear effortless but require a great deal of technical mastery. There’s a logic to poetry that is different than the logic of fiction, what Kelly Link once described to me as “night time logic” or dream logic. Dreams have their own internal rules that do not correspond to the rules of the real world—but that does not mean that they are without consistency and stakes within the dream world. I find that sometimes I like to explore the possibility of bringing poetic logic into fiction, just to see what I can get away with.
To offer a quick example, in the story I mentioned earlier, “Blessed,” a child receives the body of St. Lucia of Syracuse from her divorced father and his new girlfriend, and this kicks off a battle of gifts as her mother presents her with a better saint—Joan of Arc. On the surface, the story takes an absurd premise and milks it for comic value, but the end of the story hinges on the fact that saints—or martyrs in this case—signify for us in two very different ways: both as images of blessedness and as images of passive resistance who will suffer all sorts of outrageous forms of violence for love. For me, the trick of that story is overtly playing up the first meaning throughout the beginning of the story while seeding in the second meaning under the surface. The climax of the story then hinges on the way in which the mother, who ends up essentially torturing her accepting daughter, acknowledges the much darker signification of what saintly love might mean. To me, that story works by poetic logic in that it is grounded in the transformation of ideas that are encoded into the resonance of specific words rather than through straight narrative.

MA: Even from the debut your works have been acknowledged by being nominated and winning various awards. How important is for a new writer to receive such recognition? Is this the best way of learning the value of your writing or is popularity to be preferred?
HM: Awards are really as important as you let them be: I have to say, one of the greatest moments of my life was when I won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer. I was in tears for the entire night because I was so touched by the recognition, and the opportunity to stand on a stage with some of my idols—Neil Gaiman was the Master of Ceremonies, Susan Cooper was accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award—and to know that I was a part of that community. That’s what an award gives you: the sense of being honoured by your peers. And, of course, as a new writer—and I was very new, I had published one short story prior to the collection—I had to work very hard to build a readership entirely from scratch. In many ways, I’ve been absolutely bowled over by the reception of my first collection. My expectations were much humbler.

MA: This year you will co-edit together with Sandra Kasturi the third collection of best Canadian speculative writing, “Imaginarium”. How important is your experience as an associate and managing editor at Chizine Publications in the editing of “Imaginarium 2014”? For “Imaginarium” do you look for stories more in the line of your work or would you prefer something different?
 HM: My experience as an editor at ChiZine Publications gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Sandra Kasturi on a number of big projects, and what I discovered was a true kindred spirit, someone warm and wise and witty, whom I continually wanted to impress. I’m very excited about collaborating with her on Imaginarium 2014 in part because—despite what I said about not wanting to “read the field”—I have a very deep love for the Canadian genre scene. There are some tremendous authors out there whom I’ve had a chance to work with at ChiZine Publications, and many others whom I’ve met at conventions and the like. Something special is happening in Canada, a kind of genre renaissance, and though there is a fear that any time you come to recognize a crest, you fear that it may already be over, nevertheless, I know that many Canadian authors are just beginning to gain traction. It is hard to say exactly what Sandra and I are looking for in Imaginarium: I certainly expect to come across a wider variety of genre angles than I typically write myself, but I would say that I am looking for the same things I try to put into my own work—moments of surprise, delight, and transcendence. And good spelling.

MA: Not only that all your published books were illustrated by Chris Roberts, but also your forthcoming new collection of short stories, “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”, benefits from his works. How did the collaboration with Chris Roberts start? Would you like to repeat in the future the experience of illustrating your books with a different artist?
HM: I met Chris Roberts at the World Horror Convention in Austin, and he kindly offered to do the cover and interior art for my first chapbook, Skeleton Leaves. I have always been impressed by his attention to detail, and his ability to pick out moments of emotional nuance and recast those moments in graphic form. I’ve just last week seen the interior pieces he has put together for Gifts for the One Who Comes After, and they are stunning. Absolutely stunning. I would go out on a limb and say that it is some of his best work to date.
As a book historian, I love the form of the book itself, and the artistic possibilities of that form. What first drew me to ChiZine Publications’ books was that Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi were willing to put time and effort into their design, frequently incorporating artwork or interesting layouts. That impressed me, and I think it impressed everyone.
I suppose, of course, I’d be like to repeat the experience of having my books illustrated by different artists—and I’ve seen some lovely artwork for individual short stories like Chris Buzelli’s magnificent cover piece for my story “The Hanging Game” on—but Chris Roberts gets me. I get him. It makes for a great working relationship.

MA: Since I mentioned “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” can you give us a few details about your new short stories collection? What should your old and new readers expect from “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”?
HM: Gifts for the One Who Comes After will feature eighteen short stories—only six of them, at this stage, previously published. As I mentioned before, whereas Hair Side, Flesh Side was very interested in history and the cost of creating art, the new collection explores the theme of legacy as a monstrous or brutal weight. It has some of my favourite stories in it including “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects”, which was shortlisted for the Gloria Vanderbilt Short Fiction prize; “Ship House”, which is something like Rumplestitskin meets The Haunting of Hill House; “The Slipway Grey”, which was on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker award, about a grandfather who contemplates his own death in the form of a massive bull shark haunting the Selebi mines in Zimbabwe; and “The Gallery of the Eliminated”, about a boy who goes to a special zoo where he watches a circus performer give birth to an extinct giant sloth. (The research for that last story involved some rather graphic YouTube videos!) Those are just a couple of the stories—but they are wild, I promise you!

MA: Besides “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” and “Imaginarium 2014” what other future projects do you have? At what are you working at the moment?
HM: Both of those projects are slated for publication in 2014, and so, I’m just in the final stages of submitting those manuscripts. Apart from that, I’m working away on my young adult novel Icarus Kids, which I expect to finish in the next couple of months, while also juggling a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford where I’m turning my recently defended dissertation into a monograph. There’s lots to keep me busy!

Thank you very much for your time and answers.