Jeff VanderMeer

Brian McNaughton's The Throne of Bones, published by Terminal Fright Press, was without a doubt the best dark fantasy collection published in 1997. McNaughton's ability to create a fresh and different face for a genre of work many readers and critics have considered long since mined out is almost as impressive as the ingenious storylines, the compelling characters, ghoulish and otherwise. Shades of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, yes, but updated and renovated with a wit and style particular to McNaughton. Even more startling, especially considering the normal fare offered by the horror genre these days, there is a tenderness to McNaughton's stories which creates a unique sense of pathos. It's little wonder, then, that McNaughton's collection was picked up as a featured selection by the SF Book Club and has made the final ballot for the World Fantasy Award. McNaughton was kind enough to discuss writing and his book with me via email.

Clive Barker clearly fears (or at least is fascinated by) bodily decay, and that fear is hard-wired into his work. What do you most fear -- and how does it work its way into your fiction?

The things we fear tend to attract us, don't they? Although I have been known to drink too much and will probably do so again, what I fear most is losing control of my words, my thoughts, my life. One reason I like H.P. Lovecraft's work so much is because that fear is central to so many of his tales. His critics may find fault with it, but I think "The Thing on the Doorstep" is his scariest story.

The ghouls who infest The Throne of Bones have the power to possess the personalities of the corpses they eat -- often to the point where the "subsumed" persons believe they are still alive and acting normally. That idea scares me.

Madness, disease, addiction, imprisonment -- all of these can take control of you. Death, of course, is the ultimate manipulator. It's always fascinated me, but I can't say I fear it. Unlike some of the people in my tales, I don't expect to know it when I'm dead. You might say I try to make death a bit scarier than it really is.

Ed Bryant and others identify you as a horror writer from way back. Do you think of yourself as a horror writer now? And what drew you to write horror?

When I was three or four, an older kid tried to scare me away from a barn full of dangerous junk by telling me the Bogeyman lived there. I spent a lot of time crawling around beneath rusted machinery and through barbed wire looking for the Bogeyman, but no luck. I've always loved a good scare, perhaps because the "Oz" and "Alice" books, the first things my mother read to me, are pretty scary stuff for a toddler. They had some wonderfully horrifying radio shows in those days, too -- Suspense, Escape, and Quiet, Please. I still regret that I was listening to Charlie McCarthy when Orson Welles terrorized the country with his Martian invasion . . . As my membership in the Horror Writers Association attests, I don't mind the label. Poe and Kafka are remembered as horror writers, and that might puzzle them. I'm sure they thought they were both writing fiction of the sort that appealed to them, no better or worse than any other kind of fiction.

The labels were invented to spare booksellers the trouble of reading all the stuff on their shelves, a necessity now that the shelf-life of the average book has become about the same as that for a tuna-fish sandwich. Such labels have tended to confuse critics, who forget that books are either good or bad. They find themselves forced to prattle about "transcending the genre" when a book with a label on it -- horror, mystery, SF, western, whatever -- proves to be a good book. To paraphrase Dryden, 'Tis no shame to be a horror-writer, tho' 'tis to be a bad one.

Seelura. It's the setting for the stories in your rather remarkable book The Throne of Bones. I'm not going to ask you where you get your ideas, but how did Seelura come into being, and when?

Authors really have it made, don't they? They can spend all the time they want on idle daydreaming and pretend they're doing something. When my daydreams about Seelura became too complicated and extensive to remember, I started writing some of them down. I'm sure the process began long before I wrote the first story some ten or twelve years ago.

Your work in Throne of Bones is being compared to everyone from Clark Ashton Smith to Fritz Leiber to Robert E. Howard to J.R.R. Tolkien. Frankly, I think Tolkien's world would be eaten alive by Seelura. I can certainly see the other influences, too, but Seelura, like the best fantastical places, seems autonomous rather than, say, a suburb of Cthulhu. Do you mind the comparisons to other writers, and did you have a kind of model in mind when you started writing the Seelura sequence?

I'll own up to the influence of Smith and Howard, and I'm honored to be mentioned with them. My admiration for Leiber's contemporary horrors is boundless, but the diction of his sword and sorcery tales is a bit too gadzooksy for my taste. I've never been able to slog through Tolkien or the subsequent clutter of Tolkienites. The idea of jolly comrades trooping along to find something or other that will save the world seems like a gratuitous retread of those "Oz" books I loved so much. My characters tend to be antisocial, and their world is beyond saving.

Howard was profoundly influenced by the Old Testament, and not just in his wonderful language. David, with his action-packed adventures, his zest for political double-dealing, his genius for military tactics and his ruthless ambition, seems a good candidate for the prototype of Conan. Howard's "Hyborean Age" suggests a solid grounding in Edward Gibbon, while his verse reflects a massive overdose on English poetry and balladry.

Smith's style, with its emphasis on sound and its ornamental vocabulary, reveals a devotion to such French masters as Baudelaire and the Flaubert of "Salammbo." His imagination was fired by the Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night and by William Beckford's extrapolation of those tales, Vathek. They didn't take their inspiration from contemporary fiction and movies, but from the grand tradition of world literature. I went looking in the same place. As for the model of my world, I used ours, through the looking-glass. Gibbon's vision of the Roman Empire was a strong influence, but I didn't overlook the world around me. When Vendriel the Good observes that the suspicion of madness in a ruler is never an obstacle to good government, I was thinking of Richard Nixon's flair for foreign policy.

Why zombies? What in particular made you want to use them as the horror trope at the center of The Throne of Bones?

Not zombies, dammnit, ghouls! In Voodoo, a zombie is a resurrected corpse. There are a few of those in Throne, but I never call them that, since the word carries associative baggage from that belief and, more recently, from all the books and movies spawned by Night of the Living Dead. In Arabic myth, ghouls are spirits that haunt graveyards, where they eat the bodies of the dead and sometimes of the living. Their credentials as "spirits" are questionable, though. In the Arabian Nights, their appetite for food is equaled by their appetite for sex. Since the conditions of their existence have never been set in granite -- as those of vampires and werewolves have been, for instance -- I felt free to invent those conditions.

Is The Throne of Bones substantially different from your other writing? If so, why in particular?

Those stories are set in another world, where society is more rigidly structured and where magic is a part of life. It seems natural to use a formal style, sometimes even an elevated one, in writing of such a place, especially when the narrator is presumed to be an otherworldly native. My contemporary stories are more colloquial. (A hefty sample of those can be found in Horrors! 365 Scary Stories, published by Barnes & Noble.)

Have you been surprised by the wide-spread praise and attention for the book? When these stories appeared individually in various publications, was there the same level of appreciation for them?

Ken Abner, of Terminal Fright, wasn't the first guy who wanted to publish a book of my tales -- the first one fell off the edge of the world, I think -- so at least two people besides myself thought they deserved wider circulation. Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley, two writers I greatly admire, encouraged me strongly to persist in this sort of work. But the general approval the book has received really is a surprise. I hadn't imagined there were so many people with such good taste.

"The Retrograde Necromancer" is one of my personal favorites from the collection. It's one of the most clever dark fantasies I've read in quite awhile. Would you care to comment on how you came to write it? And what is your own personal favorite in the collection?

I set out to write a story about something else entirely, one that determinedly refused to be written. "The Retrograde Necromancer" just sort of popped out of my head while I wasn't looking. I'm very fond of "Meryphillia," which my old friend Gene DeWeese described as a Romeo and Juliet for ghouls. That's just what I had in mind when I wrote it.

The dust jacket for the book includes an appreciation by the publisher, Ken Abner. He mentions you have a whole chronology and set of maps for Seelura. You didn't want these published with the collection. Abner mentions those items as "crutches." Could you elaborate on why you didn't want the chronology and maps published?

None of that stuff is really finished -- and if it were, I would feel less inclined to write fiction about my imaginary world. A certain sense of discovery is necessary for me. Besides, I feel strongly that the stories should stand on their own. I have to know as much about the world as possible in order to convince the readers that I know what I'm writing about, and that my characters weren't found yesterday under a cabbage leaf. The late Lin Carter deserves our admiration and gratitude for all he did to bring dark fantasy to the attention of the public, but he's the last sort of person I would want messing around with my creations. Maps and chronologies only encourage such people.

Are there any Seelura stories which are not in the collection, and do you plan to write more stories in the sequence?

I have a few stories that need a bit more work, and many more ideas for stories I hope to write.

The question of favorite writers is overused, so let me ask you instead, what writers have had the greatest impact on you, whether pleasant or unpleasant?

Some writers have both effects on me -- pleasant because I love what they write, unpleasant because I know I'll never be that good -- Nabokov, Poe, and John Collier, to name just three at random. I can read Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevski with undiluted pleasure because I know it's absolutely useless even to think about being that good. Like Bach, they must have come from another planet. Most writers merely exasperate me.

Please describe how you write -- do you do long hand drafts, for example? What process do you go through in editing and revising your rough drafts?

If I were marooned on a desert island, I suspect I would write in the sand with a stick. I have written in longhand when other means were unavailable, but I greatly prefer a computer. I revise and cut and rearrange exhaustively, and a computer is well suited to that method.

There is an interesting tension in your stories, I feel, between the physicality of the world and the spirituality of the world. On the one hand, you slop blood and guts all over the place (a somewhat necessary side effect of using ghoul characters) and on the other, you have a touching delicacy with regard to human emotion -- I'm thinking, for example, of the end of "Reunion in Cephalune," in particular these sentences about the zombies: "Those who dared creep close enough descried a curiously domestic scene on its portico; a young man and woman who sat very still as they observed, day after day, the interplay of light and shadow across the desert." Would you comment on this tension -- and am I right in thinking that you sometimes worry about maintaining the right balance?

I believe that we are soft creatures in a world with some very hard edges. It's remarkable that we survive at all, much less do high deeds or write great music. I think the tension you speak of is a condition of our existence, and I do my best to depict it.

Why do you think the bottom has fallen out of the horror market?

Put bluntly, the public wised up. The real mystery is why we experienced such a booming horror market for so long, when some of the silliest garbage ever produced was slapped between covers by editors who must have been virtually illiterate. It would be unkind to cite examples, but I can think of some very funny ones.

Have there been any recent developments regarding the book besides the World Fantasy Award nomination and the SF Book Club edition?

I blew off a mass-market paperback publisher who insisted on a big chunk of world rights and other subsidiary rights, refusing to admit that his own paperback would be a subsidiary publication. I suspect there is no real money in paperbacks anymore, at least not for mid list authors, thanks in part to that "tuna fish sandwich" syndrome. By giving me an advance on such terms and publishing a token edition, a publisher would be gambling that he might cash in on sub rights. He wanted a cut even of those rights I am negotiating already -- I have tentative nibbles for British, German and French sales. This is sort of like someone selling you a refrigerator on condition that he can drop in once a week and take half your food for the rest of your life.

[Also,] Richard Corben has agreed in principle to illustrate a graphics version of some "Bones" stories. I met him at NecronomiCon, where I was floored to learn that he had not only heard of me but had liked my stuff, and I myself have long admired his work. We have yet to work out a deal with a publisher, though, so this may be just one of those things.

For those who have read The Throne of Bones and hunger for more McNaughton tales, where can they find them?

An anthology edited by Bruce Gehweiler will include a contemporary story of mine, "Housebound," that I am very proud of. I gather that the book from Marietta Publishing is to be like one of those old Ace Doubles, and will be called New Mythos Legends/Dark Dixie. My tale will be in the "Dixie" half. At the risk of offending fans of the HPL pastiche-industry, I have a couple of stories coming out soon that I consider frivolous -- one, a continuation of the Herbert West saga that puts the irrepressible re-animator to work on Jesus Christ at the behest of Heinrich Himmler, to appear in Parts, # 15, from Necronomicon Press; and "The Doom That Came to Innsmouth," suggesting that JFK was a dupe of the Deep Ones, to appear in Tales of Innsmouth, edited by Robert M. Price, from Chaosium.

What are you currently working on?

Bookshelves. If I ever get those damned things set up, I may go back to Seelura for a vacation.

* * *

The Throne of Bones is an attractive hardcover which can be ordered for $35.00 plus $3.50 shipping and handling from: Terminal Fright, PO Box 100, Black River NY 13612.


© 1999 Edward P. Berglund
"An Interview With World Fantasy Award Finalist Brian McNaughton": © 1998 Jeff VanderMeer. All rights reserved. This is reprinted from The Ministry of Whimsy.
Graphic © 1999 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004