One of the most prolific and dizzyingly experimental writers working today, Joseph S. Pulver is a contemporary luminary of the weird fiction genre, whose influences stretch beyond the remit of usual stalwarts like HP Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers – the latter, nonetheless, being a key reference point, as evidenced by Pulver’s recent release, The King in Yellow Tales Vol. 1, through which Pulver breathes fresh life into the master’s work. But as proof of what we’ve just said, there has also been another collection this year – A House of Hollow Wounds – and Mr Pulver speaks to us candidly about what underpins both collections, the difference between homage and mere fan fiction, and the importance of maintaining catholic reading habits.
Your affection for popular culture is hardly a secret, but you’re certainly not shy to experiment with form in your work – some of which recalls the most ‘literary’ of forebears. What do you make of the knee-jerk suspicion of ‘literary fiction’ in some genre circles? Where do you think it stems from, and what kind of effect do you think this attitude could have on authors – both those who are starting out, as well as veterans – and the field in general?
My interests as a reader are wide, they have always been. As a teen, I had no trouble reading things like Tarzan, HP Lovecraft, Frank Herbert, Tolkien, Marvel Comics, Hubert Selby, Jr., Hesse, Heinlein, and Dangerous Visions, all at the same time, or one after the other. Everything you read goes in your toolbox, and the array of tools you gather frees your work. You need John le Carre as much as you need Seabury Quinn or HPL, or Beckett or Paul Celan. Brilliant — important — writers like Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, and Michael Cisco, are informed and inspired by all kinds of work, they let nothing, least of all labels or trends, limit their work.
Horror and weird fiction have been seen by some, perhaps too many, as a ghetto—the red-headed stepchild of ‘Literary’, and some folks who want to break out and be accepted, as those in crime and science fiction and fantasy are now, have begun to look at the application of literary fiction as a way to gain appreciation and recognition. For others, ‘literary’ bears no more or less weight than genre fiction.
There’s plenty of fantastic pulp and genre fiction and libraries full of majestic literary fiction, and yes, soup-to-nuts, more is better. Read it all!
From HP Lovecraft to Robert W. Chambers to Thomas Ligotti and countless others, your work is very often an explicit tribute to horror and weird fiction writers of the past. This brings up interesting questions about literary tradition and influence, particularly on the rift between bona fide ‘homage’ and what the internet generation has dubbed ‘fan fiction’. What would you say marks the key distinction between the two, if there can be a single one at all, going by your own direct experience of writing stories that are overt responses to previous work?
Homage is a word of power to me. It means you got in me, inspired me, given me vision or shared yours on a ‘deep level’, and I must creatively interpret (I hope!) the gift I’ve received. From this a work of merit is produced. To me, most often, fan fiction (and most pastiche) is just someone shouting, ‘Hey, I’m playing in the sandbox too! Look at what I did.” They didn’t craft it, just typed it up and put it on the internet to become one of the ‘clan’. There are those out there who look and say, I can make some money off that, so they whip up something, insert the names/characters or themes (Lovecraftian, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter) that pastiche (or fan fiction) requires and sell it as an “E” product on Amazon. That’s not homage, that’s crap.
To me, it all boils down to the quality of the work, the language (open a book by Tanzer or Cisco or Barron or Llewellyn and you’ll discover true magic), and the imagination behind it. I read things that are seemingly respectful, but they have no vision and merely rehash or attempt to fill in some blank, and the writing does not unfurl beautiful and interesting. I need to be engaged, seized… I want magic.
Beyond your many acknowledged literary influences, music also has an effect on your writing, as the endnotes to the stories in A House of Hollow Wounds show. Could you tell us a little bit how music directly impacts on your writing process (while noting, of course, that most probably there’s no repeated, hard-and-fast rule where this is concerned)?
I have music playing most of the time; let’s say over 90%. Often it is jazz, instrumental. If I’m playing something and it’s called, “Four Dreams of Absolution”, it might strike me, what is it about, absolution of what? Is this a tale? From there I wander… the alto sax might become a character to me, one filled w/ a sense of dread, and the acoustic bass may strike me as part of the setting, perhaps a moving shadow, or a skulking rat eyeing a prize. With these elements (or variants of them) swirling around, I’m off on my search to find out what it is. Or I may have been playing a few things (things that other people would not think go together—like early Diamanda Galas and Jobim, or Eno and Tom Waits) and pieces, words/sentences, come into my head, these words often become a character or setting, the DNA of a tale, or an idea for a part of one.
Sometimes I put together a playlist for a piece I’m working on and it keeps me anchored to the text. It could be 6 versions of Jobim’s “Wave” and for whatever reason they keep me in Carcosa as I work on the tale, or it might be a 2/3/4 hour playlist that informs different parts of the tale I’m tinkering with.
There are times I’m writing and singing (badly) and drumming along (badly) and when the words happen, they become textural lyrics in what I’m working on.
Everything depends on the song(s)/compositions, on the day, on my mood, and on the tale I’m trying to create or polish, or where I’m trying push it.
How have you seen the weird fiction ‘scene’ change over the years? What were some of the most significant developments in this – admittedly broad – genre since you first started writing?
New Weird, postmodern, post-post, hybrid, are all part of good-old Weird Fiction to me, it all falls, more or less, under the same umbrella. From Kubin to James to Kafka to Jean Ray and on to Bradbury and Aickman and Koja and Tanith Lee, to present-day magicians like Michael Cisco and Livia Llewellyn, the Weird, to me, keeps expanding. It has always added what attracts and captivates the attention of the next generation of writers. Part of its makeup is restlessness and so it has moved on from its roots seeking another wave of innovation. Yet, I don’t see this as a trend, seems to me Weird fiction has always been searching, innovating.
If there is a significant change, it surely must be the overwhelming talent pool of truly gifted creators we have the privilege and joy to be reading currently. And I do not see the following as a scene, but a much welcomed (and NEEDED!) change, the acceptance and exposure of women, POC, and LGBTIQ writers—even if it is not as loud and widespread (and swift) as I’d like it to be. These writers are essential, as diversity must be promoted if we are to further expand the horizons and potential of weird fiction, and what better way to further develop and enrich the landscape of The Weird? Look around; you have Molly Tanzer, Gemma Files, Nadia Bulkin, Selena Chambers, Helen Marshall, Chesya Burke, Kaaron Warren, Anna Tambour, Karin Tidbeck, Damien Angelica Walters, Amanda Downum, and Julia Elliot, to name but a handful of the amazingly-talented women currently creating. And we have the likes of Usman Malik, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Stephen Graham Jones, Yoon Ha Lee, Tananarive Due, and LGBTIQ writers like Sunny Moraine and Kiernan and, and, and, and, and — I could go and on for pages…
For those who thrill on the avenues and around the campfires of the Weird, we live in heady times!
How difficult is it to make a living as an author without compromising your work? Does being so clearly affiliated to certain authors and genres help or hinder in this regard?
It is not easy… for anyone. In my case, being less experimental with form and backing off on the hybrid poetics might make my path easier, but I’m called to the work and go where that path leads, it would be dishonest to the work, and ultimately to my readers, to do otherwise. Trust me, if I knew something would make money, I’d write it!
Being ‘affiliated to certain authors’ might make the mountain harder to climb at times, but to be part (even a small one) of their ranks (and seen as a peer) is an honor and a source of great pride.
A House of Hollow Wounds is a rich collection of varied material. Would you say there is any connecting thread to the work? And what kind of step would you say this book marks in your career as an author so far?
The primary connector in building one of my collections is this is where I traveled of late. I’m too restless to stick with one theme, or one form, for long periods of time, though time and time again, I return to Chambers’ King in Yellow works. My use of language (my voice) and literary worldview are connecting elements.
I hope, like all authors do, that AHoHW finds it way to new readers, and of course, hope that readers who have enjoyed my work in the past will find more of what they liked in this new collection. As a “writer”, hopefully, AHoHW says, I’m still searching for new directions, I’m still growing.
This has been a big year for you, as you’ve also published the The King in Yellow Tales, Vol. 1. The work of Robert W. Chambers has, for better or for worse, made its way to the pop culture sphere thanks to the first season of True Detective. Do you appreciate this sudden surge of attention? How will your volume aim to bolster that?
I see this new interest in Chambers’ creations as a positive and I wholeheartedly welcome it, I may be the current curator, but in no way do I own it, nor do I care to. This broader exposure will bring more readers to Chambers core KIY tales, and I hope, to me, and spreading Chambers’ King in Yellow tales has always been important to me — I’ve been shouting praises for his KIY works for nearly 20 years now. Another positive aspect is, it will inspire new KIY work from other writers (and creators), some will be wonderful, some crap that’s just coatailing, and this reader looks forward to the pleasure of reading the wonderful! I also hope that most new KIY material will be in touch with and faithful to Chambers’ vision, and be free of Derlethian influence.
My KIY collection (The King in Yellow Tales vol. 1; Lovecraft eZine Press 2015) is a summation of what I discovered and FELT in the core material and where my investigations have led me so far.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started a new novel, and I’m editing several new anthologies.