“A Brief Flash of Strangeness”: Adam McPhee in Conversation with TOADSTONES Author Eric Williams

Eric Williams is a writer living on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Protean, and Firmament, and he’s been nominated for a Pushcart and Best Small Fictions. His first book, Toadstones, is a collection of short stories firmly in the tradition of the weird tale. He has a website (geoliminal.com) and he’s @Geo_Liminal on Twitter.

Adam McPhee: I was thinking recently about psychological depth versus iconography, something I picked up either from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or an old John Dolan book review where he contrasts the modern psychological novel with the straightforward and concise prose of the Scandinavian sagas. McCloud talks about how simple iconic images allow for easier viewer identification with characters, and Dolan writes that “the psychological novel is perfectly adapted to a world in which nothing ever happens, while the style of the Sagas evolved in a world in which all too many things happened, all too often, to require commentary.” So you would think that genre fiction would be less bogged down by writers aiming for the psychological end of the spectrum, that it would tend more towards using the straightforward and iconic. Maybe that was the case in the early days, but it doesn’t feel like it now. Yet Toadstones feels like it’s pushing back against this neediness, that its stories are unashamed to be straightforward horror stories or weird tales, without aiming for, say, a realism that’s immediately betrayed as soon as the genre element comes into play. Does that make sense?

Eric Williams: That makes a lot of sense, and I think there’s a bunch to unpack about it.

First off, I’d say that genre fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, the broadly constructed weird tale, whatever, requires a certain level of straightforwardness to work. I’m reminded of something Samuel Delany said in an interview or an essay or something, about how language and metaphor changes between naturalistic/realistic writing and genre writing. The example Delany gave was, I think, something like the sentence “Her world exploded.” In a New Yorker story, that’s a clear metaphor that we instantly understand as relating to her interior life, her view of things, her experiences and expectations about the world around her, whatever. But in genre fiction, we can’t rely on that—like Delany says, it’s entirely possible that her world literally exploded. So when writing genre stuff, you have to be in some ways even more aware, keep a firmer hand on the tiller of your language. As an aside, that ambiguity is the greatest strength of genre fiction: the reader has to pay attention, and you can play around with the expectations of conventional language and the frisson of unexpected usage. But you’ve also got to, eventually, straighten it out and say what you mean, because you don’t want someone misinterpreting the whole thing because you got lazy with metaphors. Like, “Oh wait, when you wrote on the first page that she had eyes like a cat, I didn’t realize that I was supposed to take that literally …” Or vice versa, right? “Wait, this guys ISN’T a lizard man? I thought you said he had a ‘cold reptilian stare’ earlier in the story?” You eventually gotta be clear!

With regards to the trend of “psychologizing” the weird tale, I think that there is a kind of embarrassment that a lot of people have about writing genre stuff, and they feel like they need to make an excuse for why writers and readers both are slumming it in this disreputable part of the bookstore. In the early days of Sci-Fi, the 20s and 30s for instance, people tried to explain how, actually, all the ray guns and rockets were educational and scientifically/technologically inspirational. It feels like some people are trying to do the same thing in horror by centering trauma as what all these weird bloody stories are “really” about.

AM: Speaking of trauma, you wrote about your approach to horror on Twitter: “a big thing about horror or spooky stories or whatever that i’ve come to realize is that a protagonist beginning a story w/ some trauma is dumb and undercuts everything afterwards, for me.

EW: Yeah and I guess hearing it read to me, I worry. I don’t want to come off, “shut up about all your trauma,” you know? That’s not what I mean and obviously there’s room for a thousand stories to blossom. 

But for me and what I like to read, I think what I like to get out of a weird tale or a spooky story is a sense of the uncanny. And I think that what I like just in terms of my own proclivities and personal tastes is if the story centers the weirdness. Because that feels very real, very relatable to me. Like we’ve all had these odd interactions or been in just absolutely weird situations that we have no explanation for, just a brief flash of strangeness, and that sense of whiplash is what I like in weird stories. The idea that, like “oh, you know, there’s this weird devil in a house that’s tormenting this family, but get this: the devil is actually about intergenerational trauma,” that kind of stuff, it undercuts the absolute weirdness of it, which I think is better served with a story just being some dumb dude and it’s like, “here I am, bopping along and then all of a sudden—what the fuck? This insane thing has suddenly engulfed me and I have no way to understand it or place it or interpret it.”

Particularly in movies, the horror renaissance that’s happened, stuff like Midsommar and all of these big horror films, the centering of trauma feels like it’s being used to justify or excuse the fact that it’s horror. Like “there’s all this weird stuff but don’t worry, it’s really about gender dynamics or it’s about histories of violence and that sort of stuff, so it’s okay to watch a monster movie!” And exploring trauma makes for interesting and good stories, obviously, but with regards to the genre, to horror and weirdness, I think it’s also interesting to just be sort of just a guy, just a dude, just a girl, you know, bopping along and then being confronted by something bizarre. Because then the resulting weirdness takes on that much more of a sense of unfairness and scale and overwhelming presence to me. And with Toadstones, all of the characters and all of the stuff that happens to them is basically just completely out of nowhere. Y’know, there’s a haunted bus. That’s it.

And then I just said all that and now I’m realizing probably what I think of as the scariest and most unnerving book of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is entirely about trauma. So obviously that sort of thing does work, when handled really well, and of course Shirley Jackson is a genius so maybe that sort of obviates what I’m talking about. Do it if you’re a genius.

AM: There’s not a whole lot of ghosts in your stories but it feels like you’re writing ghost stories.

EW: I’m glad you brought that up, There’s collections of M.R. James’ work that gets put out as Christmas ghost stories. But there’s maybe only a couple of stories where the thing, the supernatural thing is an incorporeal spectre. Mostly it’s like, you know, a spider-devil lives in this church or Count Magnus, there’s some sort of undead revenant with a tiny cloaked thing, with tentacles too. And it gets back to the respectability thing, I think. They call him a ghost story writer because it’s a genteel, respectable thing to write ghost stories. Maybe he used that term too, I’m not a James scholar, but you get the feeling that they want to use that because it’s a respectable term. Like there’s a classical tradition of the ghost story and that’s a perfectly reasonable adult literary field to be in. A ghost writer. Or a writer of ghost stories. As opposed to this coarse, weird, pulpy shit.

I think also as an antiquarian and a medievalist, M.R. James probably must have been drawing on that same medieval literature for his inspiration. Which doesn’t have a lot of what we think of as the traditional ghost stuff in it. A lot of what are called ghost stories are like, “a goddamn dead body is back!” Or “all these Viking chieftains have shown up for supper, but they’ve been dead for a hundred years and it’s like, what are we gonna do?” A lot more of what I would think of as weird stuff as opposed to the very Victorian image of a sheeted spectre slipping through the moonlight. 

I think that with horror fiction, weird fiction, wherever those things are delineated, there’s a real history in the actual stories that’s a lot weirder and a lot more intermingled with what people tend to think of as the goopy, cosmic horror Lovecraftian type stuff. Lovecraft himself was drawing on a very long lived tradition of much weirder, more visceral, stranger things than I think he tends to be portrayed as. I mean, they treat Lovecraft as a sort of solitary genius who came up with all this stuff out of nothing, but you know, he read a shit ton and knew what he was doing. 

AM: I was reading this thing online that, I don’t know if it’s a standard thing for short stories that everyone knows except for me or whatever, but it divided them into three types: epical, lyrical and artifice. And the idea was that epical stories are the ones that revolve around a revelation at the end, so Sherlock Holmes is the obvious one but also like New Yorker stories where there’s an emotional revelation at the end.

EW: Sure.

AM: And then the lyrical ones, it was talking about, how there’s a recurring image or symbol, and they can still revolve around a revelation but the central symbol is ultimately irresolvable, it can’t be explained. And then the third type was artifice, where it talks about the escalation of images, but always two seemingly incompatible ingredients. A juxtaposition. So like the big example for that one is Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where you have the bug or the vermin on the one hand, then the workaday life on the other. So I was just going through Toadstones and it seemed to me like, some of them I couldn’t put in one category or another, but it seems like they’re about evenly split between epical where there’s a revelation at the end, and lyrical where it revolves around a symbol or image. Does that make sense to you?

EW: I think that’s interesting. That sounds like a pretty effective way to look at these. The caveat is that I don’t have any formal English literature training.

So I’ve not heard of that tripartite division. It’s interesting and I was thinking the other day, you know a lot of horror stories or weird fiction stories, I guess, I don’t know if those are necessarily the same thing, but that sort of stuff, I realized actually has a lot to do with jokes, like the structure of a joke. 

In that you have to, the reader has to get a sense that it’s moving towards something. And sometimes the reader knows where it’s going and the pleasure comes from seeing the characters flail around not knowing. But other times the reader doesn’t know what’s going on and you spring the punchline on them at the end and that’s the pleasure of the story, so that sounds like what you’re saying with this kind of revelatory/epical kind of story structure, that sounds close to how I tend to write them. Though I maybe also tend not to write short stories with much planning. I kind of just start and see where they go and power through to the end. 

So maybe that’s the way, the easiest route to get to them. That is interesting, I think, that kind of structure. It sounds, I would probably not argue with that in terms of like, those two sorts of forms are the way that I tend to think of stories. 

And I guess also with the symbol type stuff too, like getting back to what you were talking about at the beginning of that question, about iconography and looking at iconography. Like the Schliemann story or even like the last story, “Tetragrammaton,” that’s kind of, those are similarly structured in that they’re building towards placing this figure, this symbol, in a sort of a different light or aura or different kind of relief from where I’d begun the story. I guess I agree. 

The one bit of literary criticism that I’ve taken to heart is Poe, on short stories. He talks about short stories as the ideal format for prose, and the reason is that it’s readable in one sitting. You can build momentum without interruptions. As opposed to a novel where you can’t possibly read it in one sitting, there are always interruptions and that’s going to necessarily break the spell that the story is supposed to be weaving. And then he also talks about the function of the short story, which is to convey a unity of effect, right, the one thing the story is about. And the short story can be about one thing and still be satisfying by providing that one thing. And I guess for me the one thing is, maybe, here’s some creepy shit to think about. And then that’s it. 

I read a lot of horror fiction, weird fiction, but I almost exclusively read short stories. I almost never read or enjoy novels in that genre. Even like the big classic writers of that sort of stuff, Ramsey Campbell or obviously, Stephen King. With those guys it’s like, man, I much prefer their short fiction because I feel it’s punchier, it’s sharper, it gets it done without overstaying its welcome. And I feel like with horror, with weird stuff, I feel like that’s a tough thing to sustain for 250 or 350 pages or if you’re Stephen King 750 pages. It’s like, this is kind of a slog now. I was creeped out at the beginning but now it’s a chore. Yup, here comes another monster. I guess the short story format functionally does something, I think. For this genre.

AM: That makes sense. Toadstones seems to have a lot of stories set in the American West. Obviously there’s a whole genre named after the West but it’s not usually associated with horror and weirdness, so I’m just wondering what made you use these settings?

EW: My parents were in the military and I was born in Germany and we moved around a lot, every two-three years we’d move somewhere different. And then when they retired down to South Georgia, in the Deep South, I lived there for a year before going off to college in Montana. So, that was sort of my first real exposure to the West. 

The American West, the Intermountain West, I did a lot of hiking and camping and a lot of field work and geology out there, and then even when I moved back into the Midwest in Wisconsin I still spent summers doing a lot of geology out in Wyoming and Colorado and Utah. So it stood out to me for sure because it was the longest I’d ever lived in any one place, in Bozeman, I’d lived there for five years or something like that.

It’s so empty compared to a lot of where I had been living. You can just park a car and hike wherever the hell you want to and be out there for weeks and never have to see anybody. It stands out in that regard, just the stark geography of it. But it also is such a weird landscape in terms of its history and of people who have moved there and lived there and decided to create identities around being Montanan or being Wyoming people, and it just really is, for somebody who doesn’t feel like they have a hometown like me, seeing people build these real serious connections to these places always struck me as being really interesting. I do tend to set things in the Intermountain West just cause it’s such a neat psychogeography for characters. There is something about how you can be really alone up on top of a mountain somewhere that’s really conducive to that kind of stuff. It’s also, I guess, it just takes a couple of things to go wrong and then suddenly you’re really at the mercy of the landscape. So yeah I think there is a kind of thrill of fear that runs through it that I like and appreciate.

AM: You’re a geologist, right? “Mudlogging” and “Seachange” feature geology prominently, and then there’s “Haruspex” which is about archaeology, which I suppose is close. How do you go about incorporating your work into your writing, especially where your interest in the occult seems to be at odds with science?

EW: Yeah, I’m a geologist in real life. Of all the sciences, it’s the one that most naturally fits into weird fiction. There’s a tendency to identify “cosmic horror” with the vastness, both spatially and temporally, of space; I reckon that’s because Lovecraft’s gibbering horrors were often from space. But if you ask me, the natural fit for horror is the earth sciences. It’s one thing to be like “space is so big and old!” and sure, it is, but you can’t beat the materiality of geology. Like, so it takes a million years for the light of some specific star to reach us—what does that really mean? Like, viscerally, to me? But I can take you out and put an 80 million year old oyster shell in your hand. A thing that lived and died 80 million years ago! That’s insane! That’s cosmic! Or we can look at ripple-marks on a sandstone that were formed when all life on the planet was single-celled. Or physically touch rocks that were heaved up from miles and miles down in the earth, bent and folded and faulted by truly unimaginable forces of the earth and brought up to the surface of the earth. That materiality makes it, for me, a much “realer” expression of the uncanniness of Deep Time that’s such a key to weird fiction. 

So, like, in the story “Mudlogging” I try and convey that with the stratigraphy they drill through, the time and age and magnitude of the earth under all our feet, before it gets weird. Also geology is fun because a lot of the cerebral, intellectual, and aesthetic pleasure of understanding the earth is underpinned by field work, by hiking around and measuring section or making maps. In that story I try to emphasize that, the kind of work-a-day labor of mudlogging and drilling wells, real mundane stuff that, even in the real world, is intersecting and interacting with some pretty wild things, when you think about it.

“Seachange” is set in a specific canyon that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in, out in Utah. Real great rocks, and the way the exposure is, you can hike through time and across different paleoenvironments, and see the old Cretaceous landscapes and shorelines as they changed and evolved. Real good place to consider the smallness and brevity of human life.

With regards to the occult, I should clarify: I’m a strict materialist. My interest in them is historical and literary. They have an interesting function in both the pre-scientific world, with alchemists and magicians and all trying to suss out some sort of operating paradigm for the world as they saw it. And then, with the occult revival and modern science, they become a way people try and articulate some semblance of meaning in what seemed like was rapidly becoming a purely mechanistic world. They’re also wrapped up with political and economic concerns—people, often the oppressed or powerless, turning to the Left Hand Path to try and effect change or strike back at those they couldn’t touch normally. And then the targets of those attacks correctly seeing in these otherwise powerless acts the seeds of rebellion and revolution, or at least a rejection of the status quo—real great stuff!

Of course, like Lovecraft said in one of his letters (I think), you end up having to make up all the occult books and old wizards and shit, because the real versions are often pretty banal and ridiculous, grimoires full of goofy charms for making ladies get naked in front of you, for instance, or spells to find buried treasure. That’s why Lovecraft and his circle had to make up all the old forbidden tomes—if they’d used the Picatrix someone would’ve gotten around to looking at it and all the hard work of building the atmosphere in their weird fiction would’ve evaporated.

AM: Toadstones has that sort of feeling from the Golden Age of Pulps, but I realized as I’m reading it there’s nothing I can specifically point to, that says this is what makes it feel like that.

EW: Rereading and editing them for the collection I was pleased that I still thought that too when I got through them. I guess I did what I was trying to do, which was create that feeling. Cause I just really like that style of literature. Not necessarily as purple as Lovecraft, but still a little bit of a sardonic humour, a bit of a slow burn kind of approach to the weirdness. 

I mean, when you’re reading a weird story you know what’s coming, so you want to sort of savour and stretch that out; I think that’s something I take from those stories. At the time they were written they were pretty fast paced, but they’re all so long compared to what generally gets published now, so that reading them today, from our perspective, they’re just so luxurious. 

My god, “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” maybe one of Lovecraft’s best stories, it’s like, the first half of it is the guy goes through a museum and takes a long bus ride. Now he’s looking for a hotel room and maybe later he would like to get some lunch. And that’s 4000 words in or something. You can barely get away with that today and there’s only a few places that would let you stretch it out like that. Luxuriating in the common place little bits and pieces of people doing stuff—I really think that’s an aspect of spooky literature that I enjoy, because it really is focused on, you know, here’s this character, let’s see what terrible things are going to happen to him, and to really get that you want a slow build up to “ah god, now he’s gone mad because he’s seen an octopus monster or whatever” you know, you gotta really sort of let that build up. It is funny because I do think that pulp stories, when they’re good, have a real real style to them. I mean obviously there’s bad examples too, but the good ones do have a style that’s kind of hard to delineate. I don’t know if I can bulletpoint it though. I’m glad though that you also thought that because that’s very much what my writing tradition is.

AM: Something that was tripping me up for some reason, is I’d always look at the characters’ occupation. Expecting an old timey occupation or something. But there’s a podcaster, stuff like that.

EW: I was thinking about that the other day too. I think I said on Twitter I’d just finished watching that Netflix show, Archive 81, and it’s a spooky show and the main character’s occupation is an archivist. He restores films and tapes and things like that. And that was the sort of thing that an old timey character might be, an archivist, someone who does that kind of stuff, but now it’s been updated. And then it just came to me, my podcast guys in that one story (“The 23 Southbound”), for instance, they’re basically just like antiquarians. The guy’s just really weird, you know, he’s really horny for busses for some reason and it’s not that different from being like “boy, I just love Mesopotamia,” so it is funny that the details, the trappings of those sorts of things are really different but at the end of the day it’s like: here’s some weirdos who are interested in some arcane stuff that’s kind of strange to be interested in and it’s gonna fuck them over.

AM: I wanted to ask you about the story about the gods (“Rack and Ruin”). The United Mithraic Church of Wyoming. I was just thinking about how they’re frightening and primordial but at the same time, the humans are as much a threat to them as they are to us. So I was wondering how you came up with that or what’s going on there.

EW: The origin of that story was the journal that it was written for, I think that was 2015, they were originally called Holding Antlers and you would send a message to them and then they would send you a picture of somebody doing something with a deer. And so the picture they sent me, I don’t think I have it anymore, it was just some goofy kid with a big smile holding over his head, a deer skull with a huge rack, huge antlers on it. And you were supposed to take this image and write a story about it. That was the thing. 

And I guess the thing that strikes me about that image, or thinking about that image, is it was a very big deer skull, very big antlers. Hiking around Montana once I came upon a moose. I crested a hill and then ahead of me was this big ass moose, and you know, that’s a big fucking animal, that’s some tremendously large Pleistocene megafauna that’s hanging out there and if it wanted to it could very easily turn me into a damp spot on the ground, you know, that would be it. So they’re this tremendously powerful force and yet obviously we’re encroaching on them and we’re driving them out of their habitat and hunting them and killing them and so that’s the relationship with sort of dangerous wilderness. Sort of mutual predation, that struck me. 

And then there’s my interest in occultism and especially western occultism, western esoterism which has a real mechanistic paradigm for how it views these supposedly all powerful magical entities that they’re supposed to be talking to, and it’s still like, “I’m gonna trap you” or “I’m gonna trade you” or “We’re gonna make a deal here” and that sort of stuff. Like you read these old grimoires and it’s always like, “Summon the devil to help you find buried treasure.” It’s a little embarrassing. So there’s a real sort of commodification of spiritual, magickal stuff that I think is interesting and that I’m always kind of thinking about in that way. I think those came together to suggest to me, people talk about these sort of mythic landscapes out west and everything, and then they mine it or drill for oil or log it to stubble. And it’s like well what if you were truly encountering mythical things? Well, given that we’re basically a bastard species we’d probably poach them. 

AM: There’s been an increased polarization of politics in recent years, your Twitter account is outspoken on that front. You lost your old account not that long ago, but your stories are apolitical, at least on the surface. Is that an intentional choice? It feels like you’re going the opposite way and pushing back on current trends, against making everything about the culture wars.

EW: Sure. Well, a number of those stories originated, I think it was probably the Halloween after Trump was elected and me being like fuck man, I love Halloween. And I’m just not feeling it, you know what I mean? I’m not in the mood for it, so I have to get in the mood, so I will write weird stories that I would like to read. I think you’re right, I think they are purposefully apolitical, in the sense that what I want is an entertaining, spooky story, without having to do too much work. Because that kind of stuff is, to do allegory well, I think it takes really patient crafting. And my goal is like I. Want. Some. Monster. Stories. Haha. So I didn’t have the patience for that kind of stuff. 

Yeah, I obviously have very strongly felt political sense, but these stories, other than a general sense of the man keeping people down, shitty landlord type stuff, they’re pretty workaday kind of concerns, as opposed to deeper systemic analyses. There’s greed and corruption, there’re bastard cops, but I don’t think I’m dissecting them or analyzing them, they’re just there, like in everyday life. And I think that is, if not conscious, at least consciously unconscious, you know? There’s that quote where somebody asked, this is super pretentious, but somebody asked Tolkien at one point in an interview about his stuff being escapism, and Tolkien was like well, sure, but can you blame a guy sitting in jail for dreaming about stuff that’s not jail? Not to make an excuse, but that is a part of, especially for me, that kind of genre fiction, weird fiction particularly, I think there is definitely a thread of pure escapism for me in it, like: boy, wouldn’t it be nice if the only thing you had to worry about was a spider-lady eating you? 

AM: Your story “Wanton Poets,” I don’t think you actually mention it in the story but while I was reading it I kept thinking of that Twitter gag/meme where people riff on the idea of early filmgoers being afraid of the oncoming train somehow coming out of the screen and running them down. Were you thinking of the bad Twitter jokes when you were writing the story, by any chance?

EW: That’s hilarious, I wish that was where it came from. I was actually thinking about the “haunted object” type of weird tale, and how kind of unsatisfying that sort of thing is, if you think too much about it. The example I’m thinking of is an M.R. James story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” that has a vile tome that ends up summoning a spider-devil from Hell. But, even with a demon coming to kill you after you read the book, unless someone was there to see it, you wouldn’t immediately blame a book for killing someone. So I wanted a kind of different object, something with an audience, and that led me naturally towards movies and film buffs, who go out of their way to find and screen weird lost gems. 

AM: Do you think social media is ever anything other than a distraction? Or is it better to just try and purge as much of it from our lives as we can?

EW: Twitter is fun for me; I’ve met a lot of cool people, made some pals, discovered a lot of great writing that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. But, of course, the secret is to remain an <1K account. If you find yourself edging up on that number, then do what I did: tell a billionaire you hope he dies in one of his vanity rockets. You’ll get banned with a quickness, and then you can start all over again.

Adam McPhee is a Canadian writer. His short fiction has appeared in Great Ape Journal, Dark Moon Digest, SFS Stories, and Ahoy Comics. He lives in Alberta and can be found on Twitter @ChalicothereX.

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