This is the third and final installment (well, semi-final, since several of his answers have opened up other questions) of my interview with author Jonathan Thomas.
There's so much Halloween spirit in his MIDNIGHT CALL, and it's all so off-kilter, and I'm so worn out with trying to think of how to explain it. You'll just have to go get the book and see for yourself.
Sherry Austin: Jonathan, tell us how you celebrate Halloween, if you do.
Jonathan Thomas: I keep it in my heart always.
S.A. You funny man!
J.T. Honestly, the authentic “ethnic Yankee” Halloween consists of pulling the shades, dousing the lights, and pretending not to be home so as to avoid a $5 outlay and grabby urchins begging for candy. Policy in this house has ranged inconsistently between “authentic” and accommodating.
S.A. Same in this house! On to something similar, but different: I love old graveyards. Do you?
J.T. My wife Angel reminds me: Graveyards must have something to do with how I turned out like this. When I was a kid, my grandmother drove me in her ’37 Ford to historic cemeteries, including some where I had remote forebears...
(S.A. interjects): I'd love to read a piece on that alone, maybe a nonfiction essay written in the memoir mode. In fact, I think Jonathan's gothic background--this thing with his grandmother taking him to graveyards (in her '37 Ford--how visual is that???) and with his father's making him think Dracula lived in the upstairs bedroom--would make a wonderful book-length memoir.
(J.T. resumes): Of course, graveyards aren’t as melancholy when you’re much younger; they’re more like open-air museums. But I still enjoy them as de facto “museums” of folk life and sentiments, and I always take guests to Saint John’s churchyard off Benefit Street for the pleasure of tromping around on a piece of land frequented by Poe, and Sarah Helen Whitman, and Lovecraft.
S.A. I'm thinking I need to know about Sarah Helen Whitman, and I don't.
S.A. Jonathan, tell me what makes the spooky spooky.
J.T. My opinion: “Spooky” is the lightheaded, ominous feeling in the face of perceived para-normality.
S.A. Good explanation. Your work is plenty spooky, but deeply rooted in mundane reality. Why?
J.T. Uh oh—I think that’s already covered in the question about naturalism.
S.A. That's right. I'm bothered myself that my questions don't seem to have a nice, logical progression, but if I did that, I'd never get them asked!
S.A. I’m interested in the origin of the sinister Mr. Finster. Is it just coincidence that I hear Munster in the name?
J.T. I hope so! I always preferred The Addams Family. [I think Jonathan means to The Munsters. Me too.] But when I was a kid, there was a short-lived sitcom called "I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster," and when that popped back into my head, I thought, "Oh no!" But if memory serves, the name “Finster” was a mere outcome of a lot of mumbling on autopilot till something sounded right. As for the man himself, his image sprang up for no plain reason while I was on a ferry between Ocracoke and elsewhere in the Outer Banks during a vacation with Angel’s family, except at first thought, the situation involved a haircut rather than a portrait. [A portrait figures hugely in the story.] There was also a nightmare some years before that, in which I was on the grounds of some nursing facility where the residents were alive but severely decomposed, like abandoned Mexican mummies, and an ex-girlfriend kept urging me, “It would mean so much to them if you just said hello.”
S.A. Haaaa! You're killing me. The story about the nymph in the water cooler. I can’t forget her. Can you tell me why? (Which story was that?)
J.T. I can see how a nymph in the water cooler might lead to uncomfortable questions of what the hell else has been in there all along. Tap water and a Brita filter—problem solved, carbon footprint reduced! (The story was “An Office Nymph.”)
S.A. Ha! I never thought of that. Actually, I think my fascination with the nymph in the water cooler has roots in my--in all our?--inner mermaid. Something archetypal, I suspect. But I digress. Define “weird."
J.T. A departure from reality, into the shadows? With or without connotations of the supernatural.
S.A. Oh, absolutely without connotations of the supernatural!
J.T. Without formal warning. Just a non-scholarly guess.
S.A. I think you really hit on something when you said "without formal warning." There are few, if any "formal warnings" in your stories. As I said in the review of MIDNIGHT CALL in S.T. Joshi's "Dead Reckonings," the reader feels like she's going to Sears and then ends up in a black hole, or something like that. Not that either Sears or black holes are mentioned in your work, not that I can recall! Again, I struggle to explain your work, which might suggest it has the seeds of greatness. Tell me why you think we like to dwell in "the weird"? What is it?
J.T. Maybe, to crib David Thomas’ lyrics about dinosaurs, “The mind’s eye does need to see… a world not like the one we see”? A form of recreation? A cleansing of the senses’ palate, like any other escapism, a bowl of “weird” sherbet between courses of bland or bitter routine?
S.A. I love that. Do you sometimes wonder what's the good in what we do, i.e., writing weird stories?
J.T. Well, if an arguable purpose of life is to reduce the total amount of suffering in the world, then we’re not good for much. But via weird tales, people who otherwise “know better” can enjoy a vicarious spiritual life for the duration, where possibilities (for better or worse) are more open-ended, and maybe cultivating that openness is healthy in itself. As long as it doesn’t lead to the New Age or a cult.
S.A. I strongly agree with that statement. Do you think, as I do, that we evolved imagination for survival purposes?
J.T. Sure, I assume it’d have survival value in the chaotic, unpredictable world of Homo erectus, in terms of anticipating danger where none was yet apparent, which would make imagination a function of rationality. Obviously there’s also a potential for guessing wrong, but I wouldn’t insist that a ghost is necessarily a misperception of “natural” phenomena, while it’s equally apparent that a ghost couldn’t be responsible for everything of which a ghost has been accused.
I’d also credit imagination with practical innovations from prehistory on, even in terms of exploiting lucky accidents—like the Cro-Magnon realization that the stone-and-bone toolkit of the last 10,000 years could be altered for specialized purposes, though changes in that toolkit likely spanned numerous little acts of the imagination over centuries. Maybe human cultures couldn’t exist without imagination?
S.A. Perfectly stated. And I can't wait to ask S.T Joshi what he thinks. Tell us how you met him.
J.T. Well, S. T. Joshi has been a lifesaver! As was another friend,Paige, who let me know that S. T. had a lecture coming up in Providence. I’d read S. T.’s H.P LOVECRAFT: A LIFE (come to think of it, Paige also gave me my copy of that) years earlier, and wanted to hear S. T. speak, and at the last minute gathered the nerve to bring some chapters of a novel to inflict on him, with trepidations that it might be a profoundly annoying thing to do, and that he might be inaccessible within a big post-lecture posse. And so he was, but when I asked his lovely wife Leslie for his business card, she not only took the chapters off my hands, but insisted I meet the man himself. That night, I gave in to some afterthoughts and tromped through a snowstorm to hand him some short stories at a symposium he was leading at Ladd Observatory, which ended up being the right thing to do because he got around to reading those in the next couple of weeks and liked them enough to ask for more, until he had read what amounted to the entirety of MIDNIGHT CALL, which he presented to Derrick Hussey at Hippocampus Press with the recommendation that I might be worth a shot. So, after a decade of bad breaks and dead ends, I have S. T. and Leslie to thank for ending the drought.
S.A. What writers or artists of other media have influenced you? TV? Film?
J.T. A question too seldom asked, considering how many movies and how much TV anyone born after 1950 has seen, versus how many books the most devoted reader finds time for.
One extremely early memory: my parents arguing over letting me stay up to watch Boris Karloff’s "Thriller" or not, because I’d be too scared to go up to bed afterwards. Which I always was. This debate went on for months, remarkably. First movies I ever saw (thanks, mom!) were "Angry Red Planet" and "The Mysterians," and at different points in my life, I was into the original "Outer Limits," "The Avengers," "The Prisoner," whatever horror and sf were on tv (multiple viewings of "King Kong," "Forbidden Planet," "Day the Earth Stood Still") or at the movies, and on into “adulthood” with tons of film noir and Jacques Tourneur and Fritz Lang and David Cronenberg, and many more that I should remember, but that drawer’s stuck right now.
Then there were comics—at a very early age, Kirby and Ditko monster titles like "Tales to Astonish" (in a failed quest at first to find a comic-book version of "Angry Red Planet") before Marvel reinvested in superheroes, and eventually reprints of ECs, and the undergrounds like "Skull" or "Insect Fear." Plus a lot of inspiring music: more “Gothic” prog like Univers Zéro and Art Zoyd and the more surreal input of early Soft Machine and Syd Barrett and Peter Hammill and Incredible String Band. And ad infinitum into the grey zone between what’s an influence and what you’re listening to when you happen to be productive. Musical references are squirreled away into stories as they occur to me, but I tend to bury and forget about ’em.
S.A. Jonathan, in our three part interview, I have found at least twenty topics that we can "explode" into full-blown discussions. Even though our conversation has been long, we've just started. But I guess we have to wrap it up so you can stop answering my off-the-wall questions and get back to doing what you do best: writing weird tales that take us all to someplace Other.
So, just a few more questions: What is your net worth? Your social security number?
J.T. Sorry, no blood in this turnip! I like your optimism, though.
S.A. Your work is quirky. Would you, therefore, call yourself a quirk? Kidding. I'm feeling punchy.
J.T. I’m sticking with “weirdo,” thanks.
S.A. Jonathan, tell us what we can expect from you next?
J.T. Well, after that first jolt of encouragement by S. T. Joshi, the writing started happening again (the first result of which was “Ariadne’s Hair”), and in the year and a half since, I’ve produced another book’s worth of novellas and some shorter items, and if Derrick at Hippocampus is amenable, maybe they’ll see the light of day in 2009 or 2010.
S.A. Jonathan, we'll be watching to see what you do next.
That's all folks. I hope you'll give this remarkable, innovative writer a try. If you're a writer, you can learn from his quirky craft and clever use of language. We've talked about art, but publishing is a numbers game and writers simply can't continue without your support. Check your local independent bookstore or order MIDNIGHT CALL directly from Hippocampus Press, if you can. We both thank you for listening to what we've had to say here.