Ray Cluley has become a familiar name in the field thanks to a seemingly tireless stream of stories and novellas that he’s produced since his initial appearance in the pages of Black Static in 2008. He’s become one of the premiere magazine’s most frequent contributors and has published in TTA’s other two titles, Interzone and Crimewave. He’s a recipient of the British Fantasy Award, has been reprinted in best-of anthologies by Ellen Datlow and Steve Berman, published with both Undertow Publications and Spectral Press, and has had his work translated into French. His first collection Probably Monsters was discussed earlier this week in our review. Cluley stopped by the Omnibus to talk about the benefits of short- and long-form fiction, the role of landscape and social outcasts in his work, and what goes into the construction of a story collection.
• How has the holiday season been treating you?
It’s been great, thanks. I don’t usually get all that excited about Christmas but my partner’s enthusiasm for it was contagious. She even bought some Jack Skellington baubles for the tree to lure me into the spirit of things and cooked the biggest dinner I’ve ever seen, we had a wonderful time. Hope you had a good one yourself.
• Have you always been writing horror and dark fiction since you started on this venture? What were some of your first efforts like?
Since I started taking writing seriously, yes, it’s been horror and dark fiction. I’ve been writing stories ever since I could string words together, my earliest efforts chronicling the adventures of Short Mouse (what a name), but the stories got a lot darker in my teens. Some of my first efforts there were truly abysmal, noteworthy only for their reliance on cliché and the way in which they imitated the (bad) fiction I’d been reading at the time, but it was a valuable learning process. The first piece I thought good enough to finally submit professionally was accepted by Andy Cox for Black Static and that set me on my way. I owe a lot to Andy for that.
• You’ve expressed your love for the short form in past interviews, citing how certain lengths best compliment the kind of story being told. Let’s go a little deeper into that: what are two specific examples of a short story (or novelette or novella) and a novel of dark speculative fiction that you believe could only have been written in those respective formats?
Oh, great question. I do love the short form, and though I don’t have anything against novels I do feel that many of them are actually just very flabby short stories. But having said that, there are some books which other people thought too long but which I adored for that fully immersive long slog of a read. The Terror, by Dan Simmons, was a cracking novel and to my mind needed all of those pages. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is damn near perfect and certainly needed to be a novel. Stephen King’s The Shining. At the other end of the scale, look at what someone like M.R. James can do with only a few pages. He can build a sense of dread with just a line or two. Poe, too, of course. He praised the short form for its ‘unity of effect’, claiming “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it” which is an interesting idea. Imagine ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ as a longer piece, or ‘The Masque of the Red Death’; they just wouldn’t work, at least not to such great effect.
• The construction of a collection has seemed to become more of a conscious concern with authors in recent years. How did you go about selecting the stories to be featured in Probably Monsters? What does the book represent to you in the greater body of your work?
Probably Monsters changed shape quite a few times regarding the story content. It was first accepted for publication about five, six years ago with plans for special limited edition hardbacks to run alongside the paperback release and everything was very exciting but then there were changes within that publishing company and the book was lost somewhere in the transition. In retrospect I’m very glad, not only because ChiZine have done such a beautiful job with it but because that initial line up of stories was a little desperate, everything I’d ever written included without any thought as to how sacrificing a few pieces might make for a stronger collection. It was a record of my work rather than a representation of it. What I have now provides a more selective choice, and I was careful to pick stories that varied (I hope) in tone and style. Perhaps I could have cut one or two more, but I also wanted to present a range of fears. Everything that scares me is in there, I think, so you’ll get a bit of an idea of who I am when you read it.
• Children and adolescents feature prominently throughout several of your stories, where typically the children are trying to make sense of the world around them while the teenagers are actively rebelling or attempting to flee that same world. Are these feelings that you recall from growing up? What makes you keep coming back to them?
I think you’re right, they’re feelings I had growing up. They’re feelings I still have, though I’ve made some peace with the fact I’ll never be able to make sense of the world and as much as I’d like to flee from it I’m also fascinated by it, particularly its dark underbelly. Of course there’s a lot to love about the world but there’s an awful lot wrong with it, too. I try to bring all of this into my writing. There are a few children or adolescents in my stories, yes, but even the adults find themselves in similar states of confusion or rebellion. I think the only people who can claim they understand the world and are happy in it or find nothing to rebel against or flee from simply haven’t looked hard enough at the world in the first place, or they have a wonderful coping mechanism such as religious faith. We’ve been using gods for a very long time to explain the world and our place in it and I can see the appeal. For many these days, in our more secular society, the sciences are the new gods, but they can’t explain everything either. The world is full of mystery, which can make it confusing and frightening, and it’s full of people living alongside us, each with their own desires and drives and each of them a mystery as well. It’s a wonderful world but a terrifying one and we recognize that early as children, it’s just that some of us can’t pack those anxieties away when we grow up to become adults. At least, I can’t. So I write about them.
• Allusions to poetry crop up throughout the book. This is a subject you’ve written about and taught in the past. How did you come to poetry and what effect has it had on your work?
Poetry has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on my work. Sometimes it’s very clear, such as a borrowed T. S. Eliot line for a title or something from Christina Rossetti, maybe a direct reference to Thom Gunn, and sometimes it can be more thematic, but mostly what I keep trying to take from poetry is how to use words to the absolute best possible effect. It can mean being economical with your word choices, being stark and precise, or it can mean using an abundance of them, a varied vocabulary for something more elegantly lyrical. Using the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it. Choosing words not just for their meaning but for the look and sound and rhythm of them, especially when put together with other words. The connotations, the repetitions, the emphasis on figurative language: all of that I learn best from poetry. And poems come loaded with meaning, often meanings plural, and not all of them obvious. I think that kind of ambiguity and the possibility of multiple interpretations can be of great value to a short story writer, especially a horror writer. In a genre that often focuses on the fantastic or the supernatural, striking methods of description can have a great impact, as can the use of metaphor, and poetry, for me, really highlights how this can be achieved.
• Many of the characters in your stories come from disadvantaged homes, broken families, socially outcast groups, only to be preyed upon by the monstrous. Do you feel that there’s a certain commentary inherent in this that arises if not during the original writing of the stories then in looking at them in retrospect?
I simply find the disadvantaged characters, the outcasts, are the ones with interesting stories to tell. If you’re not one of those then you already ‘fit in’, becoming part of the bland mass that is ‘normal’. Of course, there is no such thing as ‘normal’ really. You could look at anyone from any walk of life and see how they feel outcast or disadvantaged in some way. Looking at how they cope, or don’t cope, with this is where my interest lies, seeing how they address it, change it, or come to terms with it. For me the more interesting conflicts are internal ones, or that friction between internal identity and the external world, an individual finding their place in society or struggling in some other difficult environment. The monstrous that preys upon them is often a manifestation of their own anxieties, or it’s an aspect of the very society in which they’re trying to find a place. Everybody fears something, just as everybody desires something, and I love looking at how these two feelings are linked, as they so often are with characters like this. If there’s any commentary here it’s that feelings of alienation or difference are in fact, to a certain extent, paradoxically universal.
• Roughly a third of the stories in the collection take place outside your home country, covering everywhere from America to Nicaragua. Are you an extensive traveler yourself? Do you like the challenge of tackling new landscapes in your fiction?
I do love foreign places. I’ve traveled a fair bit but mostly around Europe and a lot of that all at once, a lightning tour through various countries in my early twenties. Egypt, briefly. Australia for eight years, but only as child, which made coming ‘home’ to England feel like moving abroad. Being abroad addresses many of those anxieties I mentioned above, those feelings of alienation, of feeling ‘other’ (imagine being a child with an Australian accent transplanted into a British school) and this is all good stuff for horror fiction. Even going on holiday you see not only different parts of the world but the same world from a different perspective. For me a lot of the pleasure of traveling comes from being taken out of my comfort zone, that frisson of, if not fear, then at least a sense of feeling unsettled or displaced (which is, in fact, why some people won’t travel). It’s great for stories, though – an exotic setting can create a short cut to feelings of unease, not only for the characters but also the reader.
I also love the variety of landscapes we have on this beautiful planet (many of which we seem intent on ruining or destroying) and the variety of beautiful people and cultures we have (of which the same might be said) and I want to include as much of that as I can in my work. I know many writers like to explore a particular locale and return to it again and again in their fiction, revealing what might hide in every nook and cranny, and this can go a long way towards establishing that writer’s place in the genre, too, letting the reader know a little of what to expect before they even start the story. Think Stephen King’s small towns in Maine, or Joel Lane’s wonderful Black Country. I intend to do something similar for a sequence of novels, but for short stories I like to go as far and wide as I can. On the one hand, setting stories in a variety of places opens up new possibilities due to different locations and areas of geographical interest, the local beliefs and the customs, and yet at the same time it’s also an opportunity to show how people aren’t all that different after all. Everybody fears something, as I’ve said, and all around the world a lot of us seem to fear the same things. There’s a strange kind of comfort to be found in that.
• Which of your stories would you say was the most difficult to write? Do you hold to the idea that the toughest compositions usually result in the most rewarding work?
The most difficult was probably ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’, but that one’s not in Probably Monsters. There was a lot of research involved but that’s never a problem because I love that aspect of the writing process. What made it difficult was trying to keep a lot of the story unsaid. You know, that old favorite adage of show don’t tell. I wanted to strip away as much of the telling as possible but at the same time I had to be sure that what I showed was enough to suggest the story while also allowing for ambiguity. I managed it, I think, but it took many drafts with long gaps between so that I could return to it fresh, so that I could clear my mind enough to see it as a reader would. It’s been the most rewarding in that the hard work paid off, and it’s had some very positive feedback from those who have read it, I just wish more people knew about it. (It’s available from Spectral Press and Amazon, by the way…)
As for the most difficult story to write from the collection, that would be ‘The Festering’, entirely due to its content. Trying to address pedophilia from an angle that’s somehow sympathetic was a challenge and I didn’t feel particularly pleasant while writing it. Ruby herself was actually easy to write and came almost fully formed as a character, but she stands in a blurred position between child and adult and occupies a grey area of culpability that was uncomfortable to explore.
• What would you say have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned as a writer?
There have been a few. When it comes to the writing itself, the most useful lesson I learnt was to just get on with it. The best time to plant a tree, they say, is twenty years ago. You can’t do that, of course, so do it now. If you want something published you have to sit down and write. You must make time for it, and take your time working at it, too, if you want it to be any good, but start now. It’s too easy to make excuses or seek distractions.
And write how only you can. Learn from others by all means, but don’t imitate. There’s a great line in the film DEAD POETS SOCIETY in which the teacher, John Keating, says “You must strive to find your own voice” adding “the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.” That pretty much sums up the two most valuable things I’ve learned as a writer (though there’s some irony in using a quote to reinforce a point about finding your own voice, I suppose).
A less pleasant, more personal, lesson I’ve learned is to be careful who and how much you help when it comes to other writers as you risk being taken for granted. And be careful what you share with people or you might find your ideas used by someone else.
• You’ve just told the secret blob in your drawer about a dream project of yours that no one else knows about. What is it?
I have a lot of dream projects, as I’m sure many writers have, many of them probably the same kind, but secret ones?
I have a couple, I guess. One dream project would be to work on the narrative for a computer game, something with the scope and immersive quality of The Elder Scrolls or Fall Out but using the Cthulhu Mythos. I think that’s a very doable (and viable) project, too. Traveling between Arkham and Innsmouth, exploring the Miskatonic University and various museums, venturing into the Dreamlands… The mythos is so developed, with so many gods and monsters and characters and forbidden tomes, that you could have a number of side quests alongside whatever apocalyptic main story drives the game. I’d have a blast working on something like that. It might sound adolescent to some, especially considering how much the Mythos has been watered down over the years, and it feels a bit like a guilty secret dream as the emphasis wouldn’t so much be on the prose but rather the plot. The complexities of story telling in games like this really impresses me, though, especially considering the challenge of allowing for multiple playing options, of writing a narrative that can develop depending on the choices made by a player. I think that would be tough to do well but I like the idea of that kind of artistic challenge.
Another secret dream project for me personally would be to write tie-in novels for Lost. I loved that show, and I feel there’s still a lot of potential there regarding the more peripheral characters. I’d love the challenge of working within the restrictions of an already created world, of shaping my narrative around existing events while adding new aspects of my own. I particularly loved the flashback aspect of each episode that developed character while also relating significantly to the current situation, the way the episode took place within the closed environment of an island setting but also expanded beyond that by looking to the past. I would have loved working on that show. The next best thing for me would be tie-ins. It’s a secret dream (or was until now!) as many consider tie-ins hack work, but if it’s for something that you love then to hell with that attitude. Lost, The X-Files, Hannibal – these are all personal favourites and it would be an absolute pleasure to write tie-ins for any of them.
• Are there any underseen authors or collections of short fiction that you would recommend to our readers?
Not so sure they’re underseen within the genre, but there are quite a few I’d love to see achieve greater recognition amongst a wider audience. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is the first that springs to mind. Ted E. Grau’s collection The Nameless Dark is great, and new, and well worth shouting about. Lynda Rucker’s The Moon Will Look Strange is a personal favourite, too. Lisa Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony is gorgeous. A personal inspiration to me is James Cooper, who I discovered in Black Static, and his new collection is called Human Pieces. Another Black Static discovery is Steven Dines who has a collection coming soon and I can’t wait for that. Try to track down his work if you can, it’s intimate, disturbing, and beautifully expressed.
• Outside of bloody fish chum and SHARK! SHARK!, what pairing do you think would make for a great dinner-and-a-movie?
Well I was always very hungry for an obvious dish while writing ‘Where the Salmon Run’, but I’m not sure that one would transfer well to film. Perhaps a good lobster dish with a movie version of ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’, that could work. Or a load of tinned and packet food while watching ‘At Night, When the Demons Come’, preferably in an old abandoned theatre while the wind howls outside…
• What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Reading is the predictable but appropriate answer. Doing absolutely anything or absolutely nothing with my partner. And daydreaming, of course. But then daydreaming is just writing without the hard work.
• Is there anything that you’re currently working on or that’s about to be released you’d like to tell us about?
Well I’ve a new story called ‘Child of Thorns’ in issue 50 of Black Static, which should be available around about the time this interview goes up. It was inspired by Angela Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’. I’m in a few anthologies due out this year but I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about those yet, though I’ll blog when the time comes. As for what I’m currently working on, there are a few projects on the go but I tend to be rather private about works in progress. The novel is nearly done, and I’ve drafted two novellas, one of which will be accompanied by a piece written by my partner for a project that focuses on writer couples. That’s been a lot of fun.
• Thanks for stopping by to chat with us, Ray.
It was an absolute pleasure, thank you for asking me. And thank you for writing such a thorough review of Probably Monsters. I’m glad you liked it.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.