“Our seas are full of mysteries.” Yes, the award-winning author Ray Cluley joins us today for our series about the nautical weird. We talk about oceanic awe, merfolk, writing techniques, what the heck is ‘literary horror’ – and his own works, of course.
Ray writes on the darker side. His work has been published in Black Static, Interzone and Crimewave from TTA Press, Shadows & Tall Trees from Undertow Press, and Icarus from Lethe Press, as well as featuring in a variety of anthologies. He’s from the UK, younger than us and a fine writer. It’s all very depressing for old greydog, who will now have to work twice as hard.
Still, put on your swimming costumes and dive into the darkness with us. Oh no, it’s Stranger Seas 3…
greydog: Welcome to greydogtales, Ray, and many thanks for coming.
ray: It’s a pleasure, thanks for inviting me.
greydog: We shamelessly hauled you into the Stranger Seas net because of your most excellent novella, Water for Drowning, so let’s begin with the aquatic side of your work. You told us in earlier correspondence that this is your favourite setting for horror, closely followed by the cold (which we might get to later). Putting it simply, what do you think is the appeal of stories set on, around or even under the sea?
ray: Yeah, I love the sea. It terrifies me. There’s so much of it, and we know so little about what’s in it, so it’s a great setting for making something monstrous plausible. I mean, if the blue whale, the biggest living thing on our planet (that we know of) can prove so difficult to find and track, what else might be out there evading our notice? And there’s such diversity of life in the sea. Have you seen the Blue Planet series? Such a wide range and variation of things, with new species discovered all the time. And truly weird things, like squids that turn themselves inside out, fish that naturally produce lights to help them hunt or survive other predators, transparent creatures that float around like their own x-ray. Our seas are full of mysteries, and creepy alien-like things.
Of course, the environment itself can kill you, so that makes it a pretty useful setting for horror, too. The threat of drowning, the destructive power of waves, the intense pressure of great depths. I remember a quote from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, a chapter heading I think, that says of the fishing trade, “It’s not fish you’re buying, it’s men’s lives” (Sir Walter Scott said it, I believe) which really highlights how dangerous the sea can be, and danger is great for any story. With so many losing their lives at sea it’s also a superb setting for anything ghostly. All those lost vessels. All those lost souls.
Plus as well as the sea itself you’ve got ships, oil rigs, submarines, all of which are excellent story settings due to the isolation, the confinement, and the limited cast of characters.
greydog: We don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the mythology surrounding mermaids has a certain relevance to Water for Drowning. You also wrote the terrific I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing. Was mer-lore something which you needed to research at the time, or did it spring from a pre-existing interest in the area?
ray: I’ve always loved the idea of mermaids. The symbolism of them, their beauty, the idea that they can be used to depict a doomed love story or the dangers of sexual allure. And regarding stories, mythology, I’ve always been particularly drawn to the ones that mix and merge creatures together with the human. I find centaurs fascinating too, werewolves, satyrs, the lamia… Interestingly many of these are also often associated with sexual desire, as if such a thing should be considered animalistic, primal, base, and with this you also get that frisson of the taboo, emphasised by the idea of interspecies breeding. All good stuff for horror stories.
greydog: We have a policy of not interbreeding with anything that has sharper teeth than us. Now, one of the things we worried about, when planning the Stranger Seas theme, was settling on a definition. Which we didn’t, so we just looked at everything wet and scary we could find. What, for you, is the quintessential nautical horror story?
ray: The first thing I thought of after reading that question was a film – Carpenter’s The Fog. Such a great film, and one I’ll watch whenever it happens to be on. And Jaws, of course, that’s a classic for all sorts of reasons. But my favourite nautical horror story to read is probably Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. Not only are the Deep Ones themselves disturbing, but the idea of trading with them, making pacts, mating with them to produce strange hybrids? There’s a lot in that story about what it is to be human, and a lot of that is scarier than any Deep One. Plus there’s that lure of the sea, calling its children back to its depths… Wonderful stuff. We crawled out of the sea, once upon a time, to become what we are today. Anything that takes us back, devolves us to an earlier state, and puts us in an environment we might have crawled away from in the first place because it’s so damn deadly, gets my vote as quintessential nautical horror.
greydog: Another aspect of Water for Drowning is the indeterminate truth about the nature of the core character (as opposed to the narrator). Do you prefer an approach where readers end a story with their own speculations as to what they’ve witnessed, rather than laying it on the line?
ray: I do prefer that, yeah. I believe reading should be an active process as far as possible, more than simply following words across a page with your eyes and imagining what they tell you. If you can involve the reader more with the actual act of story telling then I think they’ll take more from the experience. I know I do. I try to write stories that don’t rely too heavily on it, though, trying to strike a balance that allows a reader to either sit back and be told what happens or do some of the work themselves. If I can put that option there, I will. And if they take the ‘do some work themselves’ option, I like to offer a few possibilities as to what routes they might take in the process. The most obvious thing to offer is a ‘straight’ story and a more metaphorical one, but I like to put in a few ambiguities that allow for different interpretations. I blame my lit degree and my teaching days.
What I don’t like are stories where the writer seems to offer this but has in fact just been vague, as if they themselves don’t really know what they’re writing. Some readers like that, but I consider it too easy, too lazy in fact.
greydog: You won a British Fantasy Award for Shark! Shark! (another conveniently sea-linked story). Apart from the pleasure of the twists in the story, you play extensively, and very successfully, with the breaking of the Fourth Wall and shifts in how characters are observed. What made you abandon straight linear narrative and viewpoint for this one?
ray: I abandoned it just for fun, at first. I tend to plan my stories, or at least write a ‘plot-page’ for myself before writing, and as it’s for my eyes only it tends to use a colloquial style with notes for the technical stuff regarding where I want to put some symbolism or subtext, a play on words, that kind of thing. Then I’ll write it properly afterwards. With ‘Shark! Shark!’ I simply didn’t turn that colloquial style off or hide it, and when it came to writing it properly I merely made it more reader-friendly, more intentional. When I was studying and teaching literature I loved plays that broke the fourth wall, the Brechtian approach of drawing attention to the art itself, highlighting art as artifice. If you simply sit back and enjoy the show you might miss, or not give enough attention to, what is being said and/or how it’s being said. Besides, I was riffing on Jaws and a few other shark films and wanted to show the reader that I knew I was doing that. Beat them to the punch, in a way, before they could judge me for it. That, plus many of the people who read my work are either writers themselves or in the course of becoming one, so I thought it would be fun to highlight the writing process as a sort of shared experience or ‘in joke’.
greydog: And it works very well. Onto the bleak and the cold. Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow is another novella of yours which has been well-received. Can you give our listeners a taste of what we might find there?
ray: It’s very different to Water For Drowning, which is a bit lewd and crude. Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow is more psychological, with a far less colloquial prose style. It’s about a woman called Gjerta Jørgensen who is in fact the first woman to join an elite dogsled team called Slædepatruljen Sirius. Their job is to patrol the frozen coastline of Greenland. It’s a tough job with all sorts of risks, most related to the extreme weather conditions, and the cold landscape made for a great setting due to its desolation and the solitude. Gjerta is a haunted woman, with half of the novella told in flashback to her life in Denmark, again with a backdrop of cold isolation. It’s all a big metaphor, landscape and weather combining in an extended example of pathetic fallacy to represent Gjerta’s state of mind, but there are monsters, too. The darkteeth. The man of traps.
It was well received but unfortunately you can’t get hold of it anymore, not at the moment, due to some issues with the publisher. However, I’m happy to say it has since found a new home and will be republished later this year…
greydog: We’ll pretend to be hip and current now. Probably Monsters is your first collection of short stories, and it’s pretty damned good. We were interested to see it described as ‘literary horror’ in some reviews. As we have you trapped here, we wanted to get your view on this shorthand term, which is being used a lot nowadays. Do you think ‘literary horror’ has any real meaning – more long words, less hack and slash, or what?
ray: To me, ‘literary horror’ is a somewhat problematic term. It sounds defensive, for starters, as if you’re saying ‘it’s not really horror, it’s cleverer than that’. At the very least it’s loaded with the assumption that horror isn’t literary unless you tag that word on first. When it’s used like this it really bothers me, because it’s an unfair judgement of the genre.
However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that, actually, there’s a hell of a lot of crap out there. I mean crap that shouldn’t be published due to the standard of writing, not crap because it’s horror. In this sense, ‘literary horror’ is sometimes a shorthand way of saying ‘this ain’t that’. In which case, it has its uses.
Oddly, some people seem to use the term as a substitute for realism. It’s literary because the writer spends a long time talking about ‘life stuff’. I don’t have time for that definition. It’s not literary because you spent ages telling me about this character’s divorce or devoted several pages to the minutiae of their daily life. That’s just fucking dull.
If I use the term it’s to describe work in the genre that has made effective use of the tools available to a writer, work that utilises various techniques to allow a story to do more than tell a sequence of events. I like stories that are ‘just’ stories – this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and it was all very exciting and scary – but I also like stories that do this while at the same time showing me that it means something, that it stands for something, that there’s a message beyond the thrill of events or well chosen words. These tend to be the stories that stand the test of time, stories that might be studied later, stories that are reprinted in, or even inspire, anthologies. This, to me, is ‘literary’ horror. Doesn’t mean it should wave its arms around and shout about it, though.
Short version: I’m wary of the term and its usage. It’s often used incorrectly and/or comes, sometimes, with a certain arrogance. And yet I’m always flattered if my own work is defined as such. I’m a contradiction (slash, hypocrite).
greydog: You been published in a lot of magazines and anthologies. As a writer, do you find the short story a satisfying vehicle, or do you prefer the novella approach to give your ideas room to grow?
ray: I love the short story form and believe it’s home to most of the best horror. Partly due to the whole ‘unity of effect’ thing and the idea that horror or terror is best accomplished in a small dose. There are novels that manage it too, of course, but many will consist of peaks and troughs rather than maintaining an extended unity of effect. In fact, a novel’s appeal is in its ability to disregard a single effect to instead tackle all sorts of different things, all at once, which a short story doesn’t have the space to do. I like the discipline of a short story. I like how well it lends itself to ambiguity.
I do like novellas a great deal as a middle ground, though, and just lately I’ve found myself writing more of them. I have to be careful that I’m not simply overwriting a short story (or being too lazy to develop a novel) but otherwise I find the form quite wonderful for horror – it doesn’t overstay its welcome, yet it allows the kind of development denied of a shorter work.
If a short story is a shot of spirits or hard liquor, then a novel is a more leisurely pint. A novella seems to fit somewhere between the two without diluting either. Half a pint with a depth charge, maybe.
Or perhaps I just have an alcohol problem.
greydog: Most of our stories are a bottle of pale ale – or come from one, anyway. In our signpost role, we collect names and notes for others to follow. It’s not fair, of course, but who are you reading and enjoying at the moment?
ray: Right now I’m mostly reading non-fiction for research but fiction-wise there are a few good ones I read recently. The Convict and Other Stories by James Lee Burke was great. I love this guy, he’s a fantastic writer at both novel and short story length. The Loney by Michael Andrew Hurley was a very good debut, enjoyably slow paced, atmospheric and gothic. One of my favourites when it comes to recommendations, though, is Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel, very engaging – I love it. I read it a while ago now but I still think about it, and it’s the first book that pops into my head whenever I’m asked to recommend something.
greydog: And finally, what are your immediate writing plans? More shorts, novellas or even novel length pieces?
ray: I’m working on a few things (as usual). A few short stories for people – one a sort of English folk horror, another a fantasy(ish) piece for a charity anthology, and something that’s a little more sci-fi. I’m working on a couple of novellas, too – one for me, home yet to be found, and one for a publisher who’s producing an interesting range from horror writer couples, so my partner is writing a companion piece for that one. And I’m still plugging away at the novel.
greydog: Ray, thanks again for joining us, and we hope that we’ll see you here on greydogtales later in the year with news of more dark offerings.
ray: Thank you very much for having me.
And you can also find more Cluley news here on his website:
As Ray mentioned The Shadow over Innsmouth, and as we do obsess on audio here occasionally, we’ll take a moment to mention the version narrated by Richard Coyle, which we enjoyed. He gives the piece a very dark, worried feel. You can check it out on Amazon by clicking the link (and probably elsewhere, but we’re lazy).
Next week on greydogtales: A return to folk horror with writer/photographer David Senior, who has walked in the shadow of M R James and survived, plus a return to finned horror in Stranger Seas 4. Can things get any more exciting? Well, yes, obviously, but let’s not be mean, now…