Darrell Schweitzer, Science Fiction Chronicle reviewer, is also co-editor of Weird Tales, another DNA Publications magazine, among his many other labors. He has published three novels, more than two hundred short stories, and countless articles, essays, poems, reviews, and interviews. He is a World Fantasy Award winner for editor (Weird Tales). He is a three-time nominee for author, a two-time nominee for collection (Transients and Other Disquieting Stories, W. Paul Ganley: Publisher, 1993, and Necromancies and Netherworlds, Wildside Press, 1999, a collaboration with Jason Van Hollander), and once for novella ("To Become a Sorcerer.") He lives in Pennsylvania.
KR: On the cover flap of Transients, your ten-words-or-less biography reads: "Novelist, short-story writer, poet, critic, essayist, reviewer, interviewer, editor." Is that in the right order? Anything missing?
DS: That seems pretty much in order. Limericist? I am still, as far as I know, the only person ever to rhyme "Cthulhu" in a limerick and live to tell about it.
KR: Aren't you first and foremost a fan?
DS: Aren't we all? Surely, none of us are in this because we think it is a neat way to get rich. That happens to some people, but only a fool expects it, especially in these rather difficult times, with book distribution in a near monopoly situation. There were something like 250 distributors controlling eighty percent of the mass-market paperback market in 1995. Today there are three. What this means is that this is a very bad time to make a living in SF and fantasy, particularly by selling novels.
My hunch is that the "Great White Hopes" of the field are Warren Lapine and John Betancourt. I don't say that just because I work for one and am published by the other. I have a conscious sense of having joined the winning team. I think that if anything is to get the field out of its present morass, it will be publishers with vision, who don't do things the way things have always been done.
But I digress. Not a bad thing in an interview.
Yes, we are all fans. We are motivated by enthusiasm first, well before monetary reward becomes a serious prospect. As I always tell my writing class, keep on writing, but don't quit your day job.
KR: How do you do it all? Where do you find the time?
DS: If you figure this out, let me know. I'm always concerned that I'm not getting enough done. The answer has to be that I do a little bit of one thing, then a little of another. I am not spectacularly prolific as a writer. If you average a story or a novel chapter a month and keep that up for thirty years, you will seem prolific in retrospect, but there are long periods of inactivity.
KR: What about "skeptic?" Are you a professional skeptic, or merely a dilettante?
DS: I'm not paid to do it. I am a "skeptic" in that, contrary to much popular opinion, I don't think that the universe is necessarily the way we wish it to be. We have to go from the evidence to the conclusion, rather than merely assuming what we wish to believe, then ignoring anything that doesn't fit. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which is rarely forthcoming. My view is that supernatural and psychic beliefs are cultural products, not the result of something that actually exists in the universe. I don't think the brain has the ability to act like a radio. There is no such thing as telepathy. Interestingly, there is no telepathy in the Bible, or in any ancient writers I've read, although I can cite an example of what seems to be clairvoyance in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, from the early 3rd century A.D.
My guess is that "telepathy" emerged as a concept when nineteenth century spiritualism tried to take on some of the authority of science by developing a large amount of "technical" jargon. It was a convenient way for the medium to claim unverifiable information. Remember that telepathy was a supernatural concept in the nineteenth century, something akin to table rapping and ectoplasm. It did not become quasi-scientific until well into the twentieth. Serious research since the 1930's, however, has failed to move it into the realm of verifiable science, a marked contrast to, say, the past sixty years' worth of atomic physics.
That's only one example. I have my doubts about the existence of elves, unicorns, UFOnauts, compassionate conservatives, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other mythological creatures. I also think, or fear, that life-after-death is just wishful thinking.
Should compelling evidence ever be produced, I will change my views.
KR: Can a "true believer" write good story, or is skepticism an absolute requirement for the storyteller?
DS: Obviously many believers have written good stories, from C.S. Lewis to Kenneth Morris to some contemporary colleagues I could name.
What I think a writer needs, though, is a sense of detachment from the subject, an awareness of what is made up, which is contrasted with a basically consensus reality. If the supernatural happens in a story, even if you believe There Are Such Things, you can't just take it for granted. You have to give it some buildup, as an intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary world.
To give you an example, in a workshop I once saw a fairly decent space-opera novel which was written by a woman who was a devout—I use the word intentionally—astrologer and neo-pagan. I'm not totally sure how pagan she was, but astrology was her sincere, daily religion—though she called it a "science." Now, a rationalist writer could write a novel about a future space-faring society of neo-pagan astrologers, but that was not what this author did. She rather blindly assumed that her beliefs were consensus reality, and used them as the realistic base on which to build her additional, "fantastic" extrapolations. To anyone of other than precisely the same set of beliefs, this made the novel seem arbitrary and confusing. As science fiction, the book was unpublishable. As an "occult" novel, it would have to find a publisher with fairly similar assumptions about what is "real" as opposed to what is made up.
I guess that's the one problem the true believer may have—an inability to step back from the material and manipulate it for artistic purposes because you're unwilling to violate the "truth." That is of course what my essay "The Necessity of Skepticism" is all about. Skepticism for the writer, in fiction. Sprague de Camp, who believed in no god, said that he liked to write about "petty little gods who can do their worshippers dirt." They have obvious dramatic and comic potential. He wasn't constrained from doing so on doctrinal grounds. It was Sprague's impression at least, from having met him, that Tolkien was.
KR: In Windows of the Imagination (Wildside Press, 1999), you say you are "someone who makes things up." What do you mean by that?
DS: Fiction writers are liars. A fantasy or science fiction writer is someone who consciously makes things up, and presents them to the reader as not factual. Recall the disclaimer de Camp and Pratt put at the head of The Incomplete Enchanter, from Lucian of Samosata: "I write of things I have neither seen nor suffered nor learned from another, things which are not and could not have been, and therefore my readers should by no means believe them."
KR: Why do you write? Why not drive a truck, or flip burgers?
DS: The motives cannot be primarily economic. I think the way you can smoke out a real writer is if you ask, "If you were so well-kept by a patron that you didn't have to write, but if you did, you would be published but not paid, would you continue to write?" The answer has to be yes. Those who would flip burgers if they could make more money that way should go flip burgers. It's the other folks who have something to actually contribute.
At the same time I suspect that many avowed hacks actually write from some sort of personal vision—Edgar Rice Burroughs for instance—and that the "aw shucks, I just do it to make a living" line is a defense mechanism. This was particularly true a couple generations ago, when anyone who wrote fantastic literature of any sort, or wrote for the pulps, would be seen as ludicrous if they took themselves seriously, rather like a prostitute putting on airs. Yes, Burroughs was a real artist in his own way. That's why his work survives, while the imitations of the hacks can be replaced by other imitations in subsequent generations, even as Otis Adelbert Kline was replaced by Lin Carter, who will be replaced by someone else, should there again be a market for Barsoom knock-offs.
KR: Why do you write, specifically, horror and dark fantasy? Why not Westerns, romances, or Star Trek tie-ins?
DS: I make a distinction between "writers" in the sense of "authors of original material" and verbal technicians, who can write an episode of Star Trek or some sharecropped series as needed. Frank Herbert, when writing Dune, was an original artist. The people who write later Dune novels are technicians, who could be just as readily replaced by other technicians of similar competence.
I'm not really interested in doing that sort of work, and I don't think I'd be very good at it. Even when given a formula for a hyper-restrictive theme anthology, I tend to get a little silly. I have been joking for years that Alternate Historical Vampire Cat Detectives is only a matter of time. I have already written a story for it, "The Adventure of the Hanoverian Vampires," in the Barnes & Noble anthology, Crafty Little Cat Crimes. Mine is about Sherlock Holmes's cat vs. Dracula's cat, thwarting a scheme to import vampires into England to depose King James VI (Stuart) and install the vile Hanoverian pretender Victoria. It's also narrated by the cat. The editors told me they had gotten a lot of period stories, and cat narratives, but this was the best period cat narrative they had received.
I don't think I could do that at longer length, though. I don't write Westerns because I don't know the West. If I'd grown up there, and had come to know and love the land and the people, I bet I could write decent Westerns. But I don't want to write something that is just a formula reshuffling of prefabricated elements. I suspect that the readers of the better Westerns don't want to read that either. They want something real.
KR: Media tie-ins: Scourge or menace?
DS: Cancer. It used to be that many publishers in our field published, say, six books a month. Now if they publish three media tie-ins and three "author-originated" non-sharecropped, non-pastiche novels, then the effective output has been cut in half. We're in a time when many novels, particularly first novels, can't get into mass-market at all because the publishers have only so many slots to fill and the media tie-ins and franchise fictions occupy most of them.
KR: Why don't we see more Darrell Schweitzer books at Barnes & Noble?
DS: I'm hoping we will eventually. I understand Wildside is getting a few titles in right now. I think the salvation of the book field is going to come when somebody does for paperbacks what Warren Lapine has done for magazines. The biggest numbers are for the books that are sold in wire racks at airports, in drugstores, etc. These stock only bestsellers. They're closed to thee and me. We have no possibility of getting in there. But a book that doesn't sell in those places is a "failure" to a bean counter at a large corporation.
What we need is someone who can see the glass as half-full rather than half empty, bypass the airport racks and go directly to the large bookstores. The "Barnes and Noble the size of Rhode Island," to use Patrick Nielsen-Hayden's memorable phrase, is our friend. An airport wire-rack will do just fine with multiple copies of just five or six titles—a new Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, Rosemary Rogers, or whoever—and will never, never stock a collection of short stories by R.A. Lafferty or Avram Davidson. But a huge bookstore needs to have tens of thousands of titles. Someone will get rich by figuring out how to go to the bookstores directly, the way Warren has with magazines, bypassing the old newsstand system entirely.
KR: It looks like your novels do well in Britain. Why is that?
DS: Actually, they didn't do that well, but New English Library was willing to take a chance on The Mask of the Sorcerer (1995) when no American publisher was. It's now out of print in Britain by the way, but doing nicely from the American SF Book Club. It earned out its advance and paid royalties in the first reporting period. It still has no American mass-market edition, and I suspect won't until distribution monopolies are broken and the New York publishing scene stops contracting. There has also been a Russian sale of the book, which will probably sell a gadzillion copies from St. Petersburg to Siberia, which may be only modest by Russian standards.
DS: Is Shakespeare irrelevant? No, of course not. Lovecraft and Dunsany and the rest are still as vital as they ever were. If our field is ever to be more than very superficial, very trendy, very ephemeral trash, it must have the ability to produce books which can speak to generations yet unborn.
Golden Age science fiction could clearly do that. Judith Berman raised some doubts in a challenging essay in The New York Review of Science Fiction as to whether contemporary science fiction can do that. Or fantasy, by implication.
If a writer has not read he is likely to produce debased imitations of things he doesn't even know. You know, a Tolkien knock-off by someone who has never read Tolkien, and whose idea of fantasy is Terry Brooks.
No, the way we know any of this stuff is any good is that there are genuine classics of fantasy—going all the way back to Apuleius's The Golden Ass.
KR: In your fiction, you seem to eschew physical violence and gore, generally, in favor of a more cerebral take on horror. Why?
DS: I have not been shy about outright gore where it's needed and effective. One critic noted the scene in We Are All Legends (Borgo Press, 1988) in which one of the crusading knights, after a Moslem city has fallen, comes up to our hero with a baby spitted on his spear. He chats pleasantly, as if nothing were at all unusual. It's all the more shocking that way.
But it's generally true that understatement will give the reader more of an emotional jolt than viscera, in the same way that in a movie a shadow and a suggestion will be more effective than an onscreen decapitation. If nothing is left to the imagination, we become detached and wonder, "Oh, I wonder how they did that? What an interesting rubber head."
KR: Is there a relationship between horror and humor? What's going on there?
DS: Gahan Wilson once described humor as the journey and train wreck of expectation. Yes, they have a lot in common. It's very possible to push the painfully grotesque into the humorous. Is my story "Soft" funny or horrifying or both? People have read it all ways. Much of what Woody Allen has us laugh about is actually very terrifying. That may be why we laugh, as a defense.
KR: What can fans look forward to from you in the near future?
DS: I'm right now trying to write a Cthulhu Mythos novelette called "Lies Dreaming" to fill out a proposed volume of my Cthulhuoid fictions—of which there are not many, which is why such a book needs some filling—all of which seem to turn on the question of why and how you get to be a member of a Cthulhu cult or some such. I conclude that some people are born to eldritch horror, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them.
One big inspiration was what is now half-jokingly called Tales of Old Corpsenburg, a series of five stories in set in a fog-bound seaport town where people obsessively collect the dead. The first of these, "The Most Beautiful Dead Woman in the World" was in the April 2003 Interzone. I've sold two more, "They Are Still Dancing" and "The Order of Things Must Be Preserved." The five form a cycle with a definite ending, rather like one of Zoran Zivkovic's story-cycles you see in IZ. I've also proposed these as a book to someone, but as yet have had no reply.
The stories are a sharp departure for me, as if I were trying to write like Franz Kafka or Thomas Ligotti, and succeeding at neither, landing somewhere between surrealism, black comedy, and, in a very general sense, political satire. The stories are all about order, conformity, decorum, etc. Why do the inhabitants of this town pack every available bit of empty space with the corpses of the mysterious and anonymous dead? Because it's always been done, of course, and propriety demands it.