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In the second installment of my interview with writer Jonathan Thomas of the recently-published MIDNIGHT CALL, I asked him...a bunch more questions! If you are a fan of the weird in literature, and especially if you are writing or hope to write in any of the related genres, please pay particular attention to what he has to say in this post. Here we get a hint of the depth and breadth of his reading in all genres, and we begin to see how the gothic sensibility pervades much of naturalist literature and vice versa. But most of all, we're going to get to know Jonathan Thomas, and as you'll see, he and his work are well worth getting to know.

Sherry Austin: Jonathan, in the last questions, I asked you what you did for a living. Now I'd like to know what you wish you did for a living.

Jonathan Thomas: When people ask what I do, as opposed to what I do for a living, I tell ’em I write horror stories, and the 5-year plan is to make the first question redundant. Likely just a dream of glory, though.

S.A.: Yes, it's getting mighty tough out there in the writing world. Mighty tough. If people don't buy books, books don't survive. Same with music, of course. Tell us about your work/writing environment. What do you see outside your window, if you have a window? (And if you can see out of it.)

J.T.: My computer and my wife’s computer have windows behind them onto the sun porch, and the sun porch overlooks tree limbs and houses across the street—no real view to speak of. But the computers are only for revision. First drafts are always in longhand because I need the flexibility to write anywhere—walking down the street, out in the backyard with the dogs, sprawling on the couch in front of the tv. Even a laptop would be a nuisance in most situations, versus scrap paper and a pen. So I guess you’d have to say my work environment is the environment.

S.A.: Give us a handle on who you are, where you’re from, and how place and environment might have shaped your work.

J.T.: I was born in Providence, at the old Lying In Hospital, but grew up in Woonsocket, voted “Most Foreign Town in America” two years in a row by readers of Life Magazine in the 1930s. I was among the non-Quebecois 10% of the population, and in the mid-’60s the Catholic primary schools were still enrolling some kids who spoke no English. Woonsocket was textbook postindustrial: vacant mills, a Main Street in collapse, few souvenirs of the old prosperity except for the third most polluted river in the country. Excellent breeding ground for cynicism and bad attitude generally! Earlier in the present century, decades since decamping for Providence, I guided a carload of friends to the widely praised Salvation Army in Woonsocket, but after half an hour within the town limits, everyone was depressed, and the consensus was that we were in a place where the Colour Out of Space was the high-school mascot. The old haunts haven’t lost their touch!

On top of all that, come to think of it, I grew up in a haunted house, sporadic clairvoyance runs in the family, and I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 when my father amused himself by telling me all about Dracula, and insinuating that he was hiding somewhere upstairs. This backfired on him when I refused to sleep in the spare bedroom at the time my parents thought they’d be having a second child, because I had concluded that Dracula had to be in that bedroom.

S.A.: (Another one of my asides): I'll have to hear more about all this. All of it! "The Old Lying in Hospital"? And I'd love to hear more about that dad. I've lived among the Quebecois, too. So much to ask Jonathan!

S.A.: Are you in your twenties, thirties, forties, or on your last leg like me?

J.T.: Ye gods, you’re decades away from my point of galloping decrepitude--

S.A.: (aside #2) Not.

J.T.: continues: In regard to which, (his age) I can remember being weirded out at age 5 by presidential debates between JFK and Nixon because, as I knew damn well from seeing Eisenhower and Kruschev on the news my whole life, world leaders were supposed to be old bald guys, and the two candidates looked all wrong.

S.A.: In my review of MIDNIGHT CALL for S.T. Joshi's "Dead Reckonings," his journal of weird literature, I called you the Prince of Titles and said your titles were like tweets for the Twitter age. They are little germs of promise. That sounds hokey, but I don't know how else to say it. How do you conceive of your titles? What do you whittle away to make them such teasing little gems?

J.T.: A lot of times they’re phrases culled directly from the text of a story. Or else they’re an attempt at a précis, with alliteration if possible, and humor if I’m lucky. In any case, thanks for the elevation to royalty!

S.A.: How do your stories come to you? In dreams, daydreams, visions? Do they start with a character or a situation?

J.T.: The germ’s often an image or a sentence that occurs to me when I’m out walking around. Or sometimes a “what if” proposition comes to mind in the middle of mental riffing about something, be it the news or whatever I’m reading. “Damn the Wheelwright” came to me after struggling through a pretty arid book about Neolithic Denmark, which leads me to posit that a dull read can still be a worthwhile read. “Dappled Ass” was an answer to the rhetorical question of what could be more obnoxious than the bicycle messengers who were recklessly endangering the pedestrians of Manhattan. Perhaps I’m proposing the oyster theory of inspiration here: irritation makes pearls or kills oysters…

S.A.: Tell us about your interest in pagan holidays. You seem awfully knowledgeable.

J.T.: I’m not, really. Wish I were. A lot of reading just sinks like a stone below conscious reach. But I went through a phase of centering stories around Celtic holidays as part of an old, arbitrary fascination with the Dark Ages and other “underlit” portions of our past that still play some role in how the world looks to us…

S.A.: One day we'll have to explore that subject in depth. Is there a reason that you can articulate why certain mythological beings appeal to you?

J.T.: I’m less interested in certain mythological beings than in certain whole mythologies. Though I love the Greco-Roman myths, it seems kind of ingenuous to treat them as part of my (and most people’s) cultural background, as opposed to the myths of my actual remote forebears, i.e., Welsh or Irish or Norse. Or at least those myths that survived the adoption of Christianity and the illiteracy of my forebears. None of whom were, as far as I know, Greek or Roman. Anyway, the myths from that part of the Mediterranean are based on thinking no less “foreign” to us than that in the Táin or the Prose Edda. It’s too bad those diverse “Northern” myths aren’t better known in this country. Whatever they may say about laws, customs, and mental habits to this day, they’re also really entertaining. But the ideal (along with the 30-hour day) would be to grow up learning something about every culture’s mythology, with emphasis on whatever contains more personal appeal...

S.A: I love that idea. Are there any aspects of the supernatural or paranormal you think are possible?

J.T.: It’s a big universe. Or is it a multiverse? One way or another, there may be room for whatever anyone cares to imagine, so I believe in pretty much everything on principle, but I’m skeptical of specific reports about anything—I mean, is that old footage of Bigfoot a hoax or not? Depends on which show on the Discovery Channel makes better sense at the moment, at least until someone admits fraud or a Sasquatch is caught on camera scrounging in a dumpster. I think this applies to religion, too. Your religion, whatever it is, will be literally true if you’re living in the right universe; unfortunately, most of us are living in the wrong universe. And human brains and senses are woefully inadequate for determining which universe we’re really in. With “faith” a cipher here, since adherents of every religion fall back on “faith” as validation.

S.A.: Very interesting. We'll have to talk more about this someday. Many writers of the weird, the supernatural, the speculative, actually have a naturalist point of view. Tell us where you are in all that.

J.T.: To impose an effect or suspend disbelief, I think it’s helpful to start on the common ground shared by the reader and the writer, and steal off from there. By the same token, in an “exotic” or historic setting, the characters still have their own version of an everyday life (even if its baseline expectations include pirate attacks or epidemics of dysentery), and understanding that, and establishing it as something detailed and believable, should be just as important when building toward the “uncanny” as when a story takes place on the street where you live. A matter of fooling readers into thinking they know where they are.

S.A.: (Aside) And he does that very, very well.

J.T.: But if by “naturalist” you mean the more technical aspects of what Stephen Crane and colleagues were up to, I think their notion of an unfair, indifferent, incomprehensible world is plenty scary and horrible, and has its roots in the 18th century Gothic that was part of every 19th century reader’s “background radiation” (Charles Brockden Brown’s WIELAND might be an example? Also, in terms of how far the apple rolls from the tree, Crane’s "Face of Fire” is very much Gothic under the naturalist surface…), and that idea of the world was reappropriated by Lovecraft, as embedded in the “C’thulhu mythos.”

S.A.: Well, Jonathan, you've certainly given everybody who has read this a lot to think about--and we're not done yet! I can foresee coming back to any number of these topics in the future, to explore them more fully. We could take that one topic of "Gothic under the naturalist surface" and really have at it. Meanwhile, we have the final installment of this three-part interview to look forward to. And the book, everybody out there, is MIDNIGHT CALL.

Till next time, "that's all folks," as the bunny said.