Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Robert Dunbar. The Pines, The Shore. An Interview with the Author. And an Excerpt!

Robert Dunbar is the brilliant and rather unsung author of several novels that fall squarely within the modern literary horror genre. Sadly, "unsung" is a word that can be used for many authors and many excellent books within this sizeable part of the horror world... and that lack of recognition really aggravates me. While various hack horror authors are able to churn out paperback after paperback filled with uninteresting ideas, shameless displays of negligible writing ability, and plots that can be described in a short sentence or less, writers like Dunbar and Tim Lebbon and Mark Samuels and Greg Gifune and Thomas Ligotti (and my personal favorite, the late Brian McNaughton) deliver less well-known works full of intelligent and often elegant prose, ambiguous narratives, and themes that require contemplation and genuine engagement with the often multi-leveled stories being told. They are not content to merely disgust you with frequent displays of gore or titillate you with grindingly adolescent sexuality; their novels and short stories exist to challenge you, on many levels - intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually. And who doesn't want to be challenged? If you don't want to ever be challenged, stop reading this now. You don't deserve to read this.

If you are interested in literary horror and dark fiction, check out Robert's excellent Goodreads group devoted to that topic: Literary Darkness.



The PinesDunbar takes the slow route to get to his horror and i appreciate it! the writing is bleak, cold-eyed yet haunting, evocative - a kind of southern gothic set in the new jersey pine barrens. most characters are portrayed as human insects of three varieties - predatory, on a sad downward spiral, or both. when positive human emotions and interactions come to the forefront, it is almost as if a great battle has been won to allow those rays of humanity their brief moments... the smallest positive gestures become almost profound when set against a backdrop of such unrelenting darkness. the supernatural element is handled with a very careful touch. some great, scary set pieces, particularly the trailer attack and the climax. of course the real horrors in this novel are the living conditions portrayed and the basic (and nauseating) callowness of most of the characters. overall this is an excellent and well-written horror novel with none of the cheesiness of other Leisure titles and i'm surprised it's not better known. perhaps this is due to the slowly unwinding narrative; although i found it to be quite gripping, the reader interested in a visceral rollercoaster will no doubt grow impatient. for me, the slow unwinding is part of what sets this novel firmly in the literary horror tradition - the richness of the language and murkiness of what is exactly occurring makes the experience a pleasantly challenging one. Dunbar clearly knows how to write traditional, "modern" horror (as presented during the opening sequence and, most effectively, in the disturbing bits involving a a doomed camping trip)... and just as clearly he has set his sights higher.



The ShoreDunbar's follow-up to The Pines is a satisfying experience. it seems as if the many years between novels has served to intensify rather than decrease his disinterest in presenting traditional horror thrills, and this novel is if anything even more challenging to the reader expecting a simple, scary narrative. straightforward suspense is still available: during the prologue (The Pines contains a similarly suspense-filled teaser) and in particular during a very entertaining sequence in which a classic sociopath toys with an equally classic foe - a haughty psychoanalyst. but that's pretty much it - the rest of the novel is for fully engaged readers only. thoughts from characters are presented in an almost stream-of-conscious style, disallowing easy identification and instead creating an overwhelming mood of weak, despairing humans grasping ineffectively at basic reasons for their existence. horrible murders occur, but the focus is placed almost entirely on those too-weak humans, the complete inability of any of the characters to truly understand each other's motives, the slow decay of a seaside town, the atmosphere of wintry isolation and a cold, dead, encroaching sea. at one point a character theorizes the horrors may be a sign of sinister changes facing the human world, evolution as something to be feared. i saw something quite different: de-evolution, of a sort: the chthonic past coming back to haunt the present, forcing the regression of civilization back into the primal. the rather magnificent final set piece felt like a metaphor for this backwards movement. as the various characters chase and are chased around the town, in and out of abandoned buildings, a police station, an amusement park... nature itself smashes the landscape, wind and rain and floods quickly dismantling the built-up world, the sea itself rushing in to destroy all in its path, as the characters struggle to understand each other, themselves, and the horrors that threaten to submerge them.



mm: What inspired you to write about The Jersey Devil?

RD: We dated in high school.

mm: Nature and elemental forces are important parts of THE PINES and THE SHORE, often as sources of destruction and transformation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RD: Very astute. Destruction and transformation, yes. What could be more primal? Throughout THE PINES, the forest is described as this “ocean of darkness,” just as the actual sea – rather than a metaphorical one – is a tremendous presence in THE SHORE. And, of course, both novels employ other elemental forces: storms, sex, fire, flood. I’m working on the final part of the trilogy now, but THE STREETS takes place in an urban environment… in many ways a far darker landscape. And the ultimate cataclysm pours straight out of the souls of the characters.

mm: What books or authors have inspired you as a writer?

RD: You realize I’m not going to say Lovecraft or King, right? (Please be nodding.) I’m more of a Blackwood, Aickman, Elizabeth Bowen kind of guy. But there are so many authors I revere. Can other writers really answer this question blithely? Okay, deep breath. Here goes. Henry Roth and William Faulkner, James Purdy and Virginia Woolf, Proust and Genet and – dear gods – Samuel R. Delany. Plus Conrad and Baldwin and Maugham and Greene, Mishima and Pessoa, Fitzgerald (Penelope, not F. Scott), Camus and Kafka, and, yes, it can all turn pretty dark. William Burroughs and Dennis Cooper and Donna Tartt and…

Just tell me when you want me to stop or we could be here a while.

mm: Any new or recently completed projects?

RD: I’m having great fun with a new anthology I’m putting together for Uninvited Books called DARK FOREST. It’s a mixture of old and new tales about dangerous terrain – the sort of sylvan glens where the trees devour people – annotated by modern masters like Ramsey Campbell, Greg Gifune, Ronald Malfi and Gary Braunbeck. Also, VORTEX should be out this spring: my nonfiction book about the folkloric (and historic) influences that inspired the classics of the horror genre.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to VORTEX:

No one dreamed them up.

No one needed to.

The vampire clawing at the window, the werewolf prowling the moor, the hags at the crossroads – they lurked here already.

Some nightmares are ancient, as old as civilization.

Some are older still.

Perhaps some anomaly in the very hardwiring of the human mind gives rise to these shades. But there are other theories, even darker, more modern. Could race memory, lingering below the conscious level, account for fears of monsters, of things that leap and crawl from the shadows?

They say a basis in fact underlies most legends. They say it all the time, all those Wise Elders in all those old horror films. The high priests, the scientists, the gypsy fortune tellers, on this single issue they agree unanimously. More to the point (certainly to the point of this book) deep currents of tradition and superstition swirl through most classic works of horror fiction.

They spring from deep within us, these nightmares, these folktales. They speak of our deepest needs, the ones we have all been taught since childhood never to put into words, because dreams reveal our other face, the one we keep hidden, the Hyde to mankind’s collective Jekyll.

Our most primitive ancestors never died, the ones who killed with rocks and clubs and clawing hands. No, they remain within us still. And when we sleep, they speak.

Clash of Kings of The Living Dead - The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby

The Marching DeadThe Marching Dead by Lee Battersby
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Angry Robot
Price: 7.99
Available: Now

When Marius don Hellespont finds himself dead for a second time and his girlfriend missing, he goes out into the world seeking answers. It seems Scorbus, the king of the dead he helped crown, is bent on waging war against the living. Can Marius find Keth and stop the king he put into power?

At the end of the Corpse Rat King, I was hoping I'd read about Marius again. Lee Battersby must have heard my prayers, as he has served up another adventure of that loveable miscreant.

The Marching Dead picks up not long after The Corpse Rat King left off. Marius' idyllic retirement is shattered and he ventures out seeking answers with sometimes hilarious results. Battersby's writing is somewhere on the Terry Pratchett-Joe Abercrombie spectrum, funny without detracting from the seriousness of the story. Here's a quote that I loved about the dead mingling with the living:

The natural order had not simply been overturned. It had been bent over a barrel and sodomized.

See what I'm talking about? There were a lot of lines of this caliber peppered throughout the text. Battersby falls right between Terry Pratchett and Joe Abercrombine on the fantasy humor spectrum.

While Marius has changed a bit from his initial outing, his fundamental tricksy nature has remained unchanged. His relationships with Keth, Bryn, and the others kept the story going. I really liked his talk with Billinor, the boy king.

The ending was a little more predictable than the ending of the Corpse Rat King but it was really the only way it could go at that point.

Four stars! When is the third book coming out, Lee?

Also posted on Goodreads

Interviewing the Dead - Lee Battersby

Today's guest is Lee Battersby, author of The Corpse-Rat King and The Marching Dead.

How long were the Marius don Hellespont books gestating in your head before you put pen to paper?
The first book took me a year to write, in two bursts, but the opening of the novel had probably been kicking about for two years before that. I’d been at a dinner party with Dave Luckett, a good friend and fantastic author, and we’d been discussing what we disliked in fantasy novels. Somewhere along the line the idea was floated that great fantasy novels never started in the aftermath of a battle. Which sounded like a challenge :)

I had the first half-page sitting in my folder for a fair while before I managed to add to it, and after that I cranked out 50-odd thousand words before I hit a problem point I couldn’t solve and came to a halt. Then, when Angry Robot announced their open submission period, it was incentive to push on and finish the manuscript.

How did you hook up with Angry Robot?
In March of 2011, the publisher conducted an open submissions month for unagented authors. I was amongst the 990-odd authors who submitted manuscripts, and was fortunate enough to be one of the 3 new authors picked up through that process. It seems that Angry Robot liked doing things the hard way, as they’ve conducted another Open Month since then, so it’s nice to work for a company that doesn’t learn its lesson the first time :)

How much are like you is Marius?
There are definitely elements of myself in the character. I have a tendency to slip into misanthropy, especially when I’m having a dark day, and I certainly have little faith in the essential nobility of man. I’m not an outright cheat, liar, thief and the like, but that’s the point where the character gets pushed to extremes to fit the page. I’ve felt like an outsider most of my life—still do, for the most part—and that feeling of rootlessness and unhappiness is very much at the heart of Marius’ behavioral patterns. But there’s some good in there, too, I think: his interactions with the young Billinor in the second book stem very much from my relationship with my youngest son, and it’s probably telling that the kids he interacts with are the ones with whom he’s absolutely straight.

Might we see a third Marius book in the future?
My contract with Angry Robot contained a clause giving them the option of requesting a pitch for a third book, which they exercised. My pitch is with them at the moment, and if they decide to pick it up then there will be at least one further adventure.

Who would you cast in a Corpse Rat King/Marching Dead TV series?
With the exception of Captain Bomthe in the first novel I never had a ‘celebrity’ face in mind when I wrote the characters—Bomthe is very much based on Bill Nighy in ‘stiff’ mode—but someone like Patterson Joseph would fit Marius to a tee. I’d settle for a cameo for myself….

What are you reading now? 
The books I read in April were China Meiville’s “Embassytown”; Lavie Tidhar’s “The Bookman; “A Father’s Story: One Man’s Anguish at Confronting the Evil in his Son” by Lionel Dahmer, which is his biography of his son Jeffrey; and Joe Abercrombie’s “Before They Are Hanged”. I’ve just started the follow-up, “Last Argument of Kings”.

What is your favourite book of all time?
Oh, man. Love these easy questions…..

Best book I’ve read in recent days was Joe Abercrombie’s “Red Country”, which set me to reading the rest of his series. Of all time? Damn. No matter what I put here, I’m going to read this in print and think “But what about…?” so how about….. “The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe?

Is there a particular book that made you want to be a writer?
The first story I ever read that made me sit back and say “Wow! I want to do that!” was called ‘It Could by You’, by a somewhat forgotten Australian author named Frank Roberts. It was first published in F&SF, I think, in the mid-60s, but I discovered it in an anthology called “SF Stories for Boys” in the late 70s, when I was 8. I still have the book, and the story is still as amazing as it was when I first read it. It’s a good old-fashioned, 1960s social SF story, but the sting in its tale is as nasty as nasty can be, and it just blew my 8 year old mind away. And I discovered the Goon Show at around the same time, so I was pretty much banjaxed for normality from that point on. After that, everything else was just icing on an already twisted cake.

What is your favourite dirty joke of all time?
Q: How do you make a nun pregnant?
A: Fuck her.

Any non-Marius books in the works? 
I have the pitch for a trilogy with my agent at the moment: I’ve written the first novel, called “Naraveen’s Land” and plotted out books 2 and 3. And I’ve finished the first draft of a novel called “Father Muerte & the Divine”, based upon a character who features in several short stories I’ve written over the years. That’s stewing nicely, waiting to be line-edited into some semblance of coherence. And I’m just finishing off the first draft of a children’s book called “Magwitch and Bugrat”, which might just be the saddest thing I’ve ever written. So you never know: if they all find homes that could be me pretty much set up for the next three or four years.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Read, get outside, go to the theatre, fuck, eat well, hit the beach, fall in love, go on road trips, pet tigers, see museums, watch movies, get into at least one fist fight, drink, speak in public, swim, get as much and as wide and as high and as deep a life into as you possible can: you might be able to describe the world without ever leaving the safety of your desk, but what’s the fucking point of that?