Thursday, June 26, 2008

Finding Appeal in the Horrific

While crime fiction is usually my literary genre of choice, it is not my only choice. It’s the writing process I hold in high esteem, no matter whether the field is crime, thrillers, horror, or science fiction. And that brings me to the subject of Benjamin Szumskyj.

I recently befriended this young literary editor, who lives in Western Australia and is no slacker in his field. In addition to being editor-in-chief of Studies in Fantasy Literature and Studies in Australian Weird Fiction, he has also written essays and articles on literary criticism for journals such as Notes in Contemporary Literature, Wormwood: Writings about Fantasy, and Star*Line: Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. To all of that, add Szumskyj’s credits as the editor of Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard (2006), Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays (2008), and American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty (2008).

As I got to know Szumskyj a bit, I discovered that apart from our sharing a passion for the works of Thomas Harris, we both read H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and many other writers from classic horror and crime fiction. Last year, Szumskyj asked me to contribute to a volume of literary essays on Harris’ work, Dissecting Hannibal Lecter (about which I have written previously on this page). And following that book’s success, Szumskyj commissioned me, as well as several other writers, to contribute to a volume about Robert Bloch and his work.

Curious to learn more about this young editor, I took the chance recently to ask him a few questions about his background, his associations with the authors and characters on whom he focuses, and his own writing.

Ali Karim: Can you tell me where your fascination with fantasy and horror fiction originates?

Benjamin Szumskyj: I confess, I have very little recollection of how it all started and have a better chance of telling you how I came to individually know authors like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. If I had to dig deeply into my subconscious, I do remember watching several cinematic adaptations of literary classics as a child, in addition to reading books on Greco-Roman mythology. Also, as a Christian, reading Old and New Testament history would have made an impact.

AK: What do you think is the continuing appeal of work by Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, Bloch, et al.?

BS: The quality and in many cases, the timelessness of their works. You can rarely become bored from rereading these authors and often find yourself reinterpreting their short stories and novels in new and exciting ways. Equally important, is that they were fascinating human beings. In reading the letter correspondences of men like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, for example, they come across as people you would want to have over for dinner and have lengthy discussions with. This is not to say I agree with what they wrote in their letters or share their worldview, but I believe those authors that stand the test of time are those whose personalities are as entertaining as their written works.

AK: What of authors writing today?

BS: Now, this is different scenario. I believe there are some excellent contemporary authors out there whose works are classic, influential, and important in their own right. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and correspond with several authors and have found some to be very approachable, likable, and as fascinating as their fiction. Tim Powers, Charles R. Saunders, Robert Hood, and William Peter Blatty are all examples of this. However, I have met some who are distant, unlikable, and not the literary geniuses I imagined them to be, whose names I best not cite for fear of being hunted down.

AK: I see you are a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association. Tell us a about that organization and what you do for it.

BS: Like the Horror Writers Association [of America], the Australian Horror Writers Association promotes horror in its native country, in all forms and mediums. As a member, I interact with other editors and critics, in addition to widely published Australian horror authors. It is still young (no pun intended to president Marty Young), but has much potential. I am particularly impressed [by] the mentorship programs and their support of my new journal, Studies in Australian Weird Fiction.

AK: And what of your own fiction?

BS: I am working on that this year. I’ve only published a few short stories and even those are nothing spectacular, though I do have a soft spot for “The Carnivorous Idol,” which first appeared in Strange Worlds #12 [Wild Cat Books, 2003] and was later revised for republication at The Specusphere.

AK: How did you get hooked on Thomas Harris?

BS: Would it be too clichéd if I said it was the cinematic adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs? Once I watched that, I read the book, then sought out Red Dragon and when released, Hannibal. I have no hesitation in declaring these three books modern masterpieces. What more can be said about these novels that has not already been uttered by millions of other readers? Hannibal Lecter has got to be one of the most fascinating characters of all literature, and the genius of the novels in which he appears is evident, chapter after chapter. I confess, though, I am not an advocate of Hannibal Rising--though it is by no means a failure and does possess some merit. I much prefer the novels written before it.

AK: What do you see as Lecter’s appeal to the general reading public?

BS: I believe it is as simple as stating that he personifies what we sadly could (and sadly have in some parts of the world) become. I’m not talking about cannibalism here; I am talking about the justification of evil by civilization. If you dwell on the evils of the world that are now considered the norm, compared to, say, 50 years ago, the list is as long as your arm. It really is shocking to see what is now considered normal and acceptable. It could be commented that it has come to the point in which the civilized has incorporated, accepted, and utilized the nature of the barbaric, while the barbarians have remained true to their nature. In the absence of God, millions of definitions of what’s right and wrong, good and evil, emerge. As such, as we don’t want to offend one another, we tolerate another person’s definition of good and evil. That is problematic. I don’t believe we have the right to be judgmental, but we can exercise rational judgment.

While this might come as a shock to you, the way today’s horror films glorify and justify violence sickens me to my core. I love the horror genre, but I am very, very selective in what I like and even more selective in what I study. I only wish that the horror I read was just fiction, but unfortunately, the world is full of evil people conducting unspeakable acts of evil. When I came to know God, I understood that morality is not relative and that goodness is a moral absolute.

Anyway, most figures in the mythology of serial killers are irrational, unsightly, and social inept. Lecter is none of these. To some, he’s a necessary evil, to others he is and will always remain a monster.

AK: So how did Dissecting Hannibal Lecter come about?

BS: Like with many of my books, I want to edit publications that I myself would want to buy and read. But more specifically, I am tired of hearing people saying “someone should write or edit a book on [insert author’s name]” and not actually do anything about it themselves. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. I have collected several non-fiction studies of the Lecter saga over the years, from book-length studies such as Daniel O’Brien’s The Hannibal Files to the occasional article in an overpriced journal, and have thoroughly enjoyed what all of them have had to say. However, frustratingly, a majority of these studies were of the cinematic adaptations rather than the texts themselves. I wanted to correct this problem and decided to edit the first-ever collection of essays studying the novels of Thomas Harris.

AK: How much work was entailed in tracking down the contributors?

BS: My editorial gift lies more in putting projects together than in the often boring work of copy editing. People know that, nine times out of 10, when I put my mind to a project, it’ll become a reality. I know many of the essayists I work with personally, either through similar interests or through mailing lists.

AK: And you are now putting together a volume about the works of Robert Bloch. Tell us a bit about your interest in Bloch.

BS: Like most people, I came to Bloch through the cinematic adaptation of Psycho, which in turn, drove me into the novel (which was even better). I remember that when I first read Psycho I lived on a street that crossed with another called Perkins, which as I am sure you know, is the surname of the actor who played Norman Bates. What was even weirder, was that a reclusive man and his elderly mother lived on the corner and she could often be seen from her window at night ...

Soon after, I bought a small collection of novels and collections from a bookseller and immersed myself in the worlds of Robert Bloch. I’ve never looked back since. What I love about Bloch is his ability to breathe new life into even the simplest plot or concept and have you looking at the normality of life in a more frightening way.

AK: Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime reissued two of Bloch’s novels, Spiderweb and Shooting Star, in a combo edition earlier this year, acquainting many younger readers with this author’s work for the first time. Looking at all of Bloch’s novels and short fiction, which works strike a particular chord with you?

BS: I am not certain, but I believe the first Robert Bloch story I ever read was “That Hell-Bound Train” in Fantasy All-Time Greats (edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg) and I was most impressed. I really enjoy all Bloch’s short stories, as he really was the master of the art form, so it’s hard to narrow the list down. “The Man Who Collected Poe,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” ... there are so many that strike a particular chord with me. In saying that, I was never a huge fan of his comedy or science fiction, but that has more to do with my taste in genres than the quality of his writing.

As for novels, I loved Psycho but didn’t care for the sequels (though I confess I did like the cinematic sequel written by Tom Holland). Psycho is a modern classic, and surprisingly, never becomes boring after many readings. Again, it’s the simplicity of the novel that makes it so compelling and timeless. I also enjoyed The Scarf [1947] and considered it a sorely neglected classic. It is worthy reading, and a publisher should really reprint it (with both endings) as a handsome hardcover slipcase.

AK: Did you know that Bloch was the guest of honor at the very first Bouchercon mystery convention back in 1970? And do you attend any such conferences yourself?

BS: No I didn’t [know that], but I know he attended a convention in Australia before I was born! I haven’t attended many conferences and conventions myself, due to the tyranny of distance. Western Australia is an isolated state. I have attended the annual science-fiction convention SwanCon in the past and have many fond memories of it, as I personally met authors and artists like Tim Powers, Charles de Lint, Eddie Campbell, Robert Hood, Terry Dowling, Stephen Dedman, and several others. I also appeared on several panels, which I enjoyed immensely.

AK: Tell us a little about your blogging and other Internet writing.

BS: I don’t write much online, as I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet and am ashamed of the ramblings I have posted online (many of which were stupidly not edited; in my younger days I often spoke without thinking first). I irregularly post on my own blog, and I just don’t find the time to interact with online communities as much as I would like to.

AK: What books passing over your reading table have impressed you recently?

BS: I recently finished The Demas Revelation, by Shane Johnson, which wasn’t too bad but could have done with some tightening of the plot. It’s a surprisingly good Christian novel and more theologically sound than the shoddy novels of LaHaye and Jenkins.

Also, I was finally able to obtain a copy of American Supernatural Tales, edited by S. T. Joshi (which was brilliant because of the authors he chose to include in the anthology), in addition to The Last of the Trunk, by Robert E. Howard, and The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: 1923-1929. The Robert E. Howard Foundation is doing amazing work with [that author’s legacy], and I highly recommend all their publications.

AK: Finally, what other projects have you lined up for the future?

BS: I am beginning to focus more on Australian weird fiction now, as this is an area that is sorely neglected and ripe for study. Christian fiction also comes across as being worthy of study and I also desire to write more theological works. Who knows, though, I may very well edit sequels for my books on Thomas Harris, William Peter Blatty, and even Robert Bloch. Time will only tell.

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