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MIDNIGHT CALL by Jonathan Thomas.

I first "met" fiction writer Jonathan Thomas through the kindness of S.T. Joshi, the H.P. Lovecraft scholar and critic of weird fiction, the man to whom so many of us who dabble in the literary weird are indebted. (A subject for a later post, which will include an interview with S.T.) I say I've "met" Jonathan, because our meeting was in cyberspace, as was my only meeting with S.T. Joshi, by the way. So many acquaintances are made that way in our digital era, and I don't know what we are to make of it.

Anyway, I doubt I'll ever see Jonathan Thomas face to face unless I can hog tie him and drag him down to Dixie. He might enjoy a visit--our weirdness here is uniquely organic--but I don't know why he should go anywhere, even to the corner store, when he can amuse himself while strolling the street bazaar of his own amazing brain.

I'm at a loss to describe how original his stories are, but I feel compelled to try. Okay, I'll try: Reading his stories, you feel as if you have walked down an aisle at Ace Hardware and ended up in the Outer Limits. I'll try again: Reading his stories, you feel as if you are walking down a dark street in a bad neighborhood, trash scuttling across the pavement, cats yowling, when suddenly you are chased by a shadowy other who turns out to be the paper-sack-headed Unknown Comic from the old Gong Show. Once more: Reading the stories in MIDNIGHT CALL, you get the sense you're skipping along a yellow brick road down a rabbit hole to a subterranean Canterbury. Now, none of those scenes occur in MIDNIGHT CALL. I'm just struggling to explain how his work can tickle your cognitive function.

Of course, you should discover it yourself. Tell me how you can resist tales with titles such as "The Weird Old Hole," "Subway of the Dead," "The Judgment Birds," "Graveside Friday Night," "Tendrils in Formaldehyde," "The Christmas Clones," "McEveety Among the Leisure Elect," and the above-mentioned stories, "An Office Nymph" and "Dappled Ass"? I mean, really.

And Jonathan's stories are not, as is some work in the genre--particularly the subset of weird literature lately called "bizarro"--weird for weird's sake.

Now, Jonathan Thomas himself might be weird for weird's sake. So, I thought I'd approach that subject with him in the following interview:

Sherry Austin: Jonathan, are you as weird as your stories make you seem?

Jonathan Thomas: I write weird tales, so it follows I’m a weirdo. But then, not every weirdo writes weird tales, or what a crowded field that would be.

S.A.: I do admire your logic. On another note, your prose style is exceptional. I can’t describe it. Can you?

J.T.: Thank you kindly—basically just an effort to come up with a convincing narrative voice that sounds good when read aloud.

S.A.: I can hereby testify that it does sound very good when read aloud. You've written some real ear ticklers. Do you like the process of writing or do you like writing only after you have written?

J.T.: Depends on the story or my mood or the phase of the moon—sorry, too many variables to give you a straight answer! Some frustrating days, some fulfilling days, with no bearing either way on quality of the output. When I figure out a difficult piece of phrasing or how to get past a kink in the plot, it feels as good as any other form of problem-solving. On the other hand, youthful satisfaction at putting down the pen after finishing a draft has been severely compromised by an old-geezer awareness of how much revision is always ahead, and then the awareness that some way to improve the wording will always crop up in 2 months or a year or 5 years, such that nothing is ever really finished. A triumph of obsession over ego?

S.A.: (An aside to readers of this interview): I'm curious why Jonathan has used the term "old geezer" when I assumed he was much younger than I am. I'll have to follow up with him on that point!

J.T. continues: Then again, after I’d started “Ariadne’s Hair” (a story in MIDNIGHT CALL) and had arrived at a productive routine (“routine” in a good sense, for once) of going out on the front porch and pouring a beer and stretching out on an old chaise lounge with a pen and some paper, I realized I was happy for the first time in a long time. Unfortunately, that idyllic “routine” couldn’t last—between season, weather, and all those other variables…

S.A.:(Another aside): I can't help but wonder if the source of Jonathan's happiness at that moment was due to the setting, the act of writing, or simply the beer.

S.A.: Tell us about your first book.

J.T.: Everything in it could stand a lot of revision!

S.A.: Don't we all say that! (About our own work!)

J.T.: Anyway, its title was STORIES FROM THE BIG BLACK HOUSE, and its contents date from between 1986 or so and 1992. It was the sole venture by a Providence literary ’zine editor, Brian Gallagher, into book publishing. But distribution or even reviews in the local paper proved impossible at the time. A sorry lesson in commerce. I think Brian still has copies for sale. Some of the stories were written after I got married (to the singer and visual artist Angel Dean) and moved to Manhattan, while others did originate in the “big black house,” a Victorian triple-decker, and the initial premise was to divide the book into “apartments” for my stuff and that of another writer (Chris Pierson) in that building, but he had to bow out for reasons unclear to me. Hence I ended up “single occupant” of the book, and as for the cover photo’s gargoyle-like model crouching on the porch railing, that’s Brian, in maybe the most intrepid act of editorship ever. Five stories from BIG BLACK HOUSE also appear in MIDNIGHT CALL.

S.A. (Aside): I have listened to Angel's work and it is awesome, on several fronts. We'll have to interview her here, too.

S.A. What are the differences between the first book and MIDNIGHT CALL?

J.T.: A lot of BIG BLACK HOUSE relied on a more colloquial voice and more sui generis story ideas, whereas from the mid-’90’s on, I resorted more to revisiting “old school” Gothic, and that sets much of the tone for Midnight Call. The point of view isn’t more conservative or retro, but the style and framing may be more traditional.

S.A.: How would you classify or describe your work? Would you call yourself a New Wave Fabulist or a writer of the New Weird? Or what?

J.T.: I join Ramsey Campbell in saying simply, “I write horror stories.” But is a horror story ever simply a horror story?

S.A.: We'll have to discuss that. This is not the first time I've found myself confused about what is and what is not horror. I'm always stunned when my own work is classified as horror. I don't think it is, and by my understanding of horror, I wouldn't say yours is, because it doesn't horrify me. It delights me. Maybe I need some re-educating on the subject! Let's drag S.T. Joshi into it, shall we? We'll get to that in another interview. Do you work in any other art form?

J.T.: At the invitation (or dare?) of friends Rick Brown and Sue Garner around 1989, I tried writing lyrics for their band, Fish and Roses, and that branched out into writing lyrics for Angel Dean and my bandmates in New York and some Swedish friends for their band scumCrown. And in 1990, a couple of Providence friends, Alec Redfearn and Rick Massimo, launched a band, Space Heater, wherein I played my grandmother’s flour tins and some scrap metal salvaged at a waterfront party in Brooklyn. The collection of kitchenware and miscellany expanded in a post-Mofungo lineup in New York that changed its name every three weeks (they’re currently Escape by Ostrich), and then I was back in Rhode Island with the Amoebic Ensemble and Panic Band (both defunct) and my own ongoing project, Septimania.

S.A.: Well! As Popeye used to say: Blow me down! Or, as several of my now-departed elders used to say, "Shut my mouth!" The Angel Dean CD I own has given me a taste of the kind of "out there" music you describe. I honestly don't know what to call it, but I love it. Brain astringent, that's what it is. What do you mean for the title “Midnight Call” to suggest?

J.T.: Just my way of saying hello.

S.A.: Well, shut my mouth. Again. What do you do for a living?

J.T.: Since 1994, I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for occasionally gruesome medical or scientific journals. You’d be appalled at the number of shotgun accidents in Turkey and Egypt… Not that one shotgun accident anywhere isn’t inherently appalling… The upside is that as far as icebreakers go, “I edit Prostate magazine” is up there with my briefly legit claim in the ’70’s that “I write for Creepy magazine”…

S.A. You pull my leg! "Prostate Magazine"?! (I next asked Jonathan what he WISHED he did for a living. I'll save his answer to that one for my next post! Meanwhile, go grab a copy of MIDNIGHT CALL. You won't be sorry.)