Halloween is sadly over, but we haven’t quite gotten rid of ghosts entirely in our Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror. Because this December, we are having a new novel to discuss on our reading circle, and what a novel! I’m talking about “A Head Full of Ghosts”, from the great writer Paul Tremblay.
Paul is one of the creators and current jurors of the Shirley Jackson Award (along with John Langan whose interview we featured in the last issue of ‘From the Mouth of the Madman’), and since the early 2000’s has been an acclaimed writer with many short stories and novels that had gained him great recognition not only from his fans, but from prominent writers as well. The Master Stephen King praised his A Head Full of Ghosts saying: “(it) Scared the living hell out of me, and I'm pretty hard to scare”.
Paul has a master’s degree in mathematics and has been a teacher and sports coach. But when the raconteur demon takes possession of your soul, the only way to vent out the ghosts inside your head, its trough literature, and Paul is a Master of the trade (master in mathematics… that’s scary too).
So let’s see how scary can this session get when we read the words From the Mouth of the Madman!!!
Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror:Truly an honor having you today Paul, especially since the novel we are about to discuss is the amazing A Head Full of Ghosts. Did someone in your family told you horror stories when you were a child? Or did you get into the world of horror all by yourself?
Paul Tremblay: Thank you for having me and thank you for reading A Head Full of Ghosts.
My younger brother and I both became life-long horror fans at an early age, so it was a family affair. When I was a child there was a television program that aired on Saturday afternoons called “Creature Double Feature.” That was my first real exposure to horror. The first movie of the double feature tended to be a Godzilla or kaiju film, which were my favorites when I was young. The second movie would be more horrific and exploitative; something like “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” or one of the Hammer Horror Films. Those movies terrified me. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the phrase “scaredy cat,” but that’s what I was. I was afraid of the dark and would sleep with stuffed animals strategically positioned around my head for protection from the boogeyman. I had terrible nightmares about monsters, and after seeing the movie Jaws when I was ten years old, I had nightmares about sharks.
Movies have always had a strong effect on me and as a child I would often watch with my hands or a blanket over my face, but I continued to watch them. That draw and pull along with the repulsion was all part of the appeal, I suppose.
CL&H: I asked Caitlin Kiernan a similar question to this, you became a scholar before becoming a writer (and in a very scary field… MATH), did your time as a teacher have some influence in your stories?
PT: I’m often asked if math informs my writing or if I’ve ever written a ‘math story’ (I have no idea what such a thing would look like). Perhaps I have a more analytic approach to my writing process. When things are going well, I aim for 500 new words a day. But before I go forward in a story or book, I always rework the previous day’s writing or the previous chapter. I creep forward in that meticulous way, so when I finally finish a full draft, the story has already been picked through and edited quite a bit.
My schedule as a teacher is conducive to writing insofar as I get three months off for summer! Being a teacher is a wonderful lesson in voice and dialogue, too. Every four or five years the students create and use a new batch of slang words that which are typically unique to my school or geographic area. The voices and phrasings used by Tommy, Luis, and Josh in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock were things my students would say circa 2014-2015.
CL&H:Your novels and short stories have a big charge of teenage angst to them; it seems many of them are told from the perspective of children or teenagers. What inspired you to voice the youth and why is there always (not only in your stories but in real life) some sense of uneasiness in this stage of life?
PT: Once I became a parent, writing stories about children or featuring children and the anxieties of parenthood really took over as a thematic concern of mine. I didn’t even notice I was doing it initially until a friend pointed out, “Hey, do you realize you write about kids a lot?”
Of course I’m well aware now and it was purposeful in the case of my last three novels: A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World. It’s not a series by any stretch but I like how the books make for a thematic arc. All three books are about families in crisis and feature an ambiguous supernatural element.
Being a child is one of the few universal experiences we all have. Those years are so fraught with wonder and anxiety, and ambiguity: it’s when we first try to figure out who we are and what the world is. Seems like perfect fodder for a horror story to me.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never left the school-aged child’s calendar (I still get excited each June when school is out for the summer, and depressed when it’s time to go back to school in September) that I still vividly remember the emotional life of the kid-me. I’ve been able to experience it all over again through the eyes of my own children, too.
CL&H:What are your views about the new version of The Haunting of Hill House? To be completely honest, I can’t help but notice that some of the ideas of Mike Flanagan seem directly influenced by AHFoG, or at least a reference to your work. The person profiting from the ghosts tormenting children, the adults not believing them, the tragic consequences of growing up with these pains… And, what about the rumors of AHFoG going to the big screen with the Iron Man family?
PT: I didn’t get much of an AHFoG vibe from the show, to be honest. I certainly don’t have a copyright on family drama with kids in horror.
Overall, I think it’s a very good show. I thought the fifth and sixth episodes in particular were excellent. I did not like the ending, however. Horror endings don’t have to be bleak, sullen, or wallow in suffering and depression. Endings can be optimistic, but I think that optimism needs to be an act of defiance, not a celebration of the status quo or wish fulfillment, and the characters must be presented as battle-scarred and fundamentally changed to reflect and honor what it was they experienced or survived.
As far as the film prospects go for AHFoG. There’s a wonderful director signed on: Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House). He is shooting another movie now, but hopefully (and knock on wood) the movie will get made in 2019. The Cabin at the End of the World has also been optioned and by the company FilmNation. They’re working on the screenplay.
CL&H: The aesthetics of your works are far from conventional classroom literature, you include notes, letters (handwritten letters), blogs, drawings… Hell! Even trivias, some extras for the readers that are not common in the typical books you find at Barnes and Noble. Do you think it’s time for a change? Accepting that new forms of literature presentation are needed and can be considered formal. In the end, we need to make literature more appealing to the younger audiences…
PT: Some of my favorite novels use the postmodern techniques that you described, including House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and Ill Will by Dan Chaon. But I’d only ever include notes or different modes of text presentation if it were to inform and serve the story. The blogger in A Head Full of Ghosts, for example: If she was there only for show, or to be an attempt to be clever, it would read hollow, I think. The blogger is there to serve almost as a ‘modern Greek chorus’, a judge commenting on the proceedings, while at the same time reflecting our modern, ambiguous times. My hope was that Karen Brissette pointing out that many of the scenes in the reality show being similar to scenes from other books and movies would make it more difficult for the reader to figure out if Marjorie is possessed or if something else is going on.
I really don’t know if including different modes within the stories ultimately appeal to younger audiences. It appeals to me as long as it serves the story, and I’m the one that I always try to please first.
As far as the extras go, I enjoy when Stephen King and other horror writers published notes to readers at the ends of their books. I thought that by including some extras, I would be carrying on that fun horror writing tradition. Plus, it’s a chance for me to talk directly to readers about my book!
CL&H:Do you believe in supernatural phenomena? I mean, you scared Stephen King, but what scares Paul Tremblay?
PT: Let’s work a little math into this discussion! 98% of the time I’m skeptic/agnostic/atheist and do not believe in the supernatural. That isn’t to say that I don’t believe there are mysteries in the universe. I believe the natural world and our personal realities are lot more malleable and ambiguous than we like to think. I’ve never experienced a ghost or supernatural phenomena. I think if I were to experience something supernatural, I would have a difficult time identifying that it was in fact supernatural, if that makes sense. It is in that manner—grounding the supernatural in a skeptical realism—I’ve attempted to present the supernatural as being ineffable and ambiguous in my novels.
So what about the other 2% of the time? Like when I’m home by myself at night? Or running up the dark basement stairs? Or when I wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare? At those moments, I do believe there are things hiding within the shadows and cracks. And I believe until I wake up the next morning, when I chide myself for being so silly…
What scares me? Everything. I’m still a scaredy cat. Real life scares like climate change and the current geopolitical climate, are less fun than the horror book/movie scares, of course. I recently had the opportunity to attend the Horror Show Film Festival in Tellurdie, CO. Late one night at the festival I watched an Argentinean horror movie called Aterrados. That’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in years. It messed me up. Later, when I had to walk by myself to the hotel I was totally freaked out; freaked out enough I had to jump into my hotel bed to avoid the hands that would surely reach out for me. I didn’t sleep well at all as the images from that movie kept playing in my head.
CL&H: Since we are Mexican, we are offended by the stereotype in which Luis is portrayed in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock… Nah! Just kidding, but this is important, as a father and as a teacher, what is your position on the way this generation is described everywhere, the “I’m offended by everything” or “I’m upset”ordeal? It’s clear that bullying is taking its toll more than ever isn’t it?
PT: Haha! I honestly haven’t had a lot experience with school-age kids being offended in the manner you described. I suspect, like most things, that generational descriptor is warped an exaggerated by the monster of social media. Don’t get me wrong: I find Twitter mobs more than a little terrifying (I highly recommend you read Jon Ronson’s book about online shaming called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed). But I don’t think we can pin it one generation as it seems to span across age groups.
CL&H: Music, metrics, math. What puts you in a trance to write? I’ve seen you chose very different kinds of music for your stories, from punk to alternative. Is there some ritual to get you in the mood?
PT: No rituals for me. It’s difficult enough to write without my worrying if the mood is correct or if the ‘writing ritual’ has been performed to specifications. If I have an hour or two to write, then I just get down to it. If rituals work for another writer that’s great and you should continue to use it if it works. Because I have a full time job still and a family, a ritual seems like a luxury to me, particularly when I’m often fighting to find the time to write. All this isn’t to say that I don’t procrastinate, because I certainly do, but when it’s time to get down to it, I shut off the web browser and do my best to write.
Music is a huge source of inspiration for me. I wanted to be in a punk band long before I ever thought about being a writer. I do play guitar a little bit but I quickly found out that I’m a better writer than a musician. Many of my book and story titles have been inspired by songs or snippets of lyrics. For instance, when I started writing A Head Full of Ghosts, I listened to Bad Religion’s “My Head Is Full of Ghost” on heavy rotation.
I prefer to write without music, but if I need to drown out background noise I’ll listen to movie soundtracks or instrumental pieces. I avoid music with lyrics when I’m writing because the lyrics distract me. Some of my go-to movie soundtracks include Ravenous (1999), The Witch (2015), It Follows (2014), and a new addition to the rotation, Mandy (2018).
CL&H: I just read an article in Motherboard titled: “Call of Cthulhu shows we need to move past H.P. Lovecraft once and for all”. In there, Matthew Gault, explains a lot of reasons for his disdain for the Master of Providence. Since the core of our group is the works of Lovecraft I couldn’t disagree more. I understand a lot of what Gault says about racism and misogyny, but still, eighty years after his death, a lot of the great horror writers are still praising his talent. What do you think about this, and does he have some influence in your work?
PT: If Lovecraft has any influence on my work, it’s indirectly. While I’ve never been a fan of his work, I do enjoy so many new writers who riff on cosmic horror (including Laird Barron, John Langan, Nadia Bulkin, VictorLaValle). I think a big chunk of my work is diametrically opposed to Lovecraft’s prescriptive story advice that the atmosphere is everything to a weird or horror story. I enjoy setting up as mundane, realistic, or “normal” situation or setting as possible and then slowly have things go wrong or appear to be off. All of which should demonstrate the health and breadth of the horror genre as there are so many ways and different techniques in which to create a horror story.
CL&H:You guys at the Shirley Jackson Awards probably have to review tons of stories and novels, but in the end, you can only choose a few winners. Over the years, has this pressure become bitter? And also, have you considered Latin-American writers and do you have a favorite author from down the border? By the way, thanks to the nominees I have discovered a few authors, Amelia Gray to mention one.
PT: I was one of five co-founders of the award and during its first two years, I did serve as a juror. It was a ton of reading. After that two year stint, I’ve served as one of the administrators, helping the jurors receive submissions so they get to do all the fun reading!
We’re always on the lookout for excellent horror fiction, so consider this an open invitation to send me recommendations, Latin-American recommendations in particular. Keeping in mind, we only considers work published in English.
Marinana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire is one of my favorite books of the last ten years. It’s genius. I really hope more of her amazing work will be translated and soon. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a favorite novel of mine. And recently I’ve enjoyed the fiction of Idra Novey, Valeria Luiselli, and Jose Saramago, and Vlad by Carlos Fuentes.
CL&H: Your stories seem to be in the line that divides transgressive fiction and horror. How do you feel about the labels most authors of horror receive? Does it have an impact on you or do you just not care?
PT: I try not to care about labels, particularly when I’m working on a particular book. But it’s impossible not to worry about labels and how it might affect the perception of your work. I don’t take myself too seriously, but—like any other writer—I’d like my work taken seriously. The ‘horror’ label in too many people’s minds is a disqualifying one. The genre stigma is still there. A quick survey of MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) writing programs in America would only come up with a few who would accept a horror writing student. I’ll admit to my own personal agenda: I want horror to be considered and read as serious literature. That was a big part of why I wanted to help start the Shirley Jackson Awards.
My own personal view is that horror is a wide and diverse genre with limitless possibilities to move the reader.
CL&H: A personal claim… How dare you make such a horrifying ending in DaDR? We were all expecting the classic “jump scare”, and all of a sudden, you made one of the scariest closings I have ever read in literature? To be honest I cried for a while and was very angry and upset at the world. Did you suffer any backlash for the cruelty reflected in that or any of your books? I guess it’s easier to assimilate terrible things happen in horror rather than the reflex of the real life. Kudos for the extras on the characters being based on real life people!
PT: Well, thank you very much. I’m so pleased the novel worked for you. I think I could be rightly accused of writing ‘sad horror’! Ha!
Oddly enough, I’ve yet to receive any sort of backlash or complaint for the violence or transgressions in A Head Full of Ghosts or Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Most of the complaints I get for the former is that readers think the book ends with a whimper (though I’m guessing those readers didn’t notice that Merry sees her breath in the coffee shop at the end) or that DaDR is too slow in the beginning.
I have had more negative reactions to some of the action in The Cabin at the End of the World, but of the negative complaints, most of it revolves about the ending of that book. Which in my mind, is perfect. Haha! So take that, haters!
CL&H: We are discussing your novel A Head Full of Ghosts this month in our reading circle, if you had to give us one reading group discussion question, what would that be?
PT: If you have the US paperback version of the novel, my publisher made me write the book club discussion questions. Ha! That was really hard. I did not enjoy it.
I’ll direct you back to the second section in which Rachel is interviewing Merry. Merry says (I’m paraphrasing), “What does it say about you or anyone else that my sister’s televised mental breakdown isn’t horrific enough?” What does Merry mean by that? What is she implying?
CL&H:Usually we ask our interviewed to give us a micro story; last edition Professor Langan gave us a long and scary one (that was praised by our readers who said he should publish it). But it doesn´t have to be long, a few lines will suffice, I’ll give you the start; Paul is on a market square looking at the Day of the Death parade in Mexico City…
PT: Can I write a story about me having revenge on John Langan for writing a long story and making me look bad (I’m sorry I won’t be able to write a long one because I have school deadlines and writing deadlines hanging over my head….)? Langan!!!! *shakes fist* -Link to Langan’s tale-
‘Paul is on a market square looking at the Day of the Death parade in Mexico City. He finds a skeleton doll carved out of wood and colored with brown lacquer paint. The carving of the ribs and vertebra are intricate and expertly done. The head is round; it’s top and back are smooth. Square eye holes have been gouged out and its horrible little mouth is a horizontal split with gnashed square teeth. What makes the doll remarkable, what makes the doll strange and incongruous, are its forearms. The forearms are made out of taped and wrapped bandages, colored with the same brown lacquer paint. The hands are not carved from the same wood. They could be acrylic or a hard plastic; Paul cannot tell the different. But the hands’ size is out of proportion with the doll. The hands are too small and they peek out like secretions beneath the bandages.
Paul squeezes the forearms; their malleability and softness makes him uneasy. He wipes his hands on his jeans as though his fingers were dampened.
Despite his repulsion, Paul purchases the doll. He refuses a brown bag from the vendor and carry’s the doll cradled in his arms. He is careful to not touch the small hands.
He leaves the parade and returns to his hotel room, the one with the oddly elevated bed that has too much room underneath. Paul props the doll up so that it sits in the middle of his mattress.Paul then kneels on the floor and checks under the bed for the ghosts and boogeymen in which he doesn’t believe.
Paul takes out a photo of John Langan. In the photo John is smiling while stationed at a table, surrounded by stacks of his own books. Paul imagines this is the last photo of John left in the world. He places the photo inside the doll’s ribcage. With his own hands sweating and shaking, Paul holds the doll’s hands, which do not feel hard, do not feel like they were made from plastic or acrylic or wood. The hands are as soft as a rotting tomato.
Paul closes his eyes and dreams only of revenge.’
Thanks again to the great Paul Tremblay for giving us his time and don’t forget to visit his official website to buy his books and anthologies, make sure to visit the following link: