Books

{Interview} Brian Hauser author of Memento Mori

Brian Hauser is the author of Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows, a wonderful debut that explores the disappearance of an experimental filmmaker and her ties to The King in Yellow. It’s the type of story the unfolds in the tilted cadence of urban legends and whispered histories, slowly unmasking itself and the horrors beneath through a variety of perspectives. Memento Mori may be a first novel, but it is undoubtedly ambitious—so much so that Word Horde, perhaps our most preeminent publisher, is releasing the novel on May 28th. I was lucky enough to exchange emails with Brian Hauser and talk about his first book, the stories that inspired it, and the mechanics of good horror.

Carson Winter: It’s a natural tendency to assume any first novel is the work of someone relatively green to the trade, but looking you up online reveals a variety of scholarly work focused on horror and weird fiction. What do you for a day job and how do you apply that perspective to genre fiction?

Brian Hauser: I started graduate school in 1999, and since then I have been a scholar and college instructor. That’s what has paid the bills for me for the past two decades, first as grad student and then later (very fortunately) as a tenure-track professor of film and literature. Currently, I teach film studies at Clarkson University, in Potsdam, NY, though this is my last year there. I went into academia because, even with its flaws and frustrations, it has always felt like the place that fit best for me both in terms of what I could offer and what it could offer me. It’s also true that the field of study I chose (first early-American literature and then later film studies) was entirely determined by my motivation to understand more fully how stories work so that I could get better at telling them myself. The critical approach that always most appeals to me is narrative theory for this very reason. Around the time I entered grad school, I also began to noodle around with screenwriting and filmmaking. I had some initial success there, and those experiences convinced me that I could juggle scholarly and creative efforts. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since then, doing critical deep dives into the kinds of film and fiction I love and then trying to create more of the same. I’ve taught some classes on weird fiction, and my students have been a tremendous source of motivation and inspiration when it comes to thinking about the weird as an author and a scholar. At the same time, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the authors of weird fiction out there who also contribute to the critical discussion like Michael Cisco, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Simon Strantzas, Kurt Fawver, S.J. Bagely, and others.

CW: How did the story of Memento Mori first appear to you, and how, as the work became more fleshed out, did it change from your initial vision?

BH: There are really two prongs here. The first is a longish story that starts with Wes Craven. Wes taught humanities at Clarkson from 1966-68. In has last year, he helped a pair of students make a 45-minute long 16mm film called Pandora Experimentia. This experience convinced Wes that he wanted to be a filmmaker (he had previously written a novel for his MA at Johns Hopkins), and he eventually used it and some other connections to jump into the movie business. Students at Clarkson tell all sorts of legends about Craven and that film: that our Elm Street is the Elm Street, that the boiler room of Old Snell Hall is the boiler room from Nightmare on Elm Street, that the student film was a horror parody and that it was actually titled Nightmare on Elm Street. None of this is true, of course. In 2015, I was asked to emcee an event at the inaugural St. Lawrence International Film Festival that was billed as “the first screening of Nightmare on Elm Street on Elm Street.” We hoped to get Craven to come back for the event, but none of us were aware at the time that he was quite ill (he passed away that August). To prepare for that screening, I did my scholarly thing and dove into Craven’s actual history in Potsdam. I read everything I could find and even managed to make contact with one of the students who made the film with Wes. The history of that student film and that time in Potsdam is a pretty good story all on its own, but it felt to me like it would only really work if you had a copy of Pandora Experimentia. Unfortunately, Wes borrowed the only copy of the film to use a show reel, and now it’s just gone. It doesn’t seem to be part of his estate. So I was left with all this background about Potsdam from the 60s and 70s, and that became the petri dish where I grew Memento Mori.

The other prong is that maybe a couple years before that, I had been introduced to Marble Hornets on YouTube, Troy Wagner’s web series that builds on the Slender Man mythos. Marble Hornets was both inspiring and frustrating, and that combination usually stirs the creative pot for me. What came out of that was the idea for a web series of vlogs about a film scholar who discovers the work of an underground filmmaker whose work seems to warp the boundary between reality and nightmare. I originally intended to produce those vlogs, but as the story developed, I realized that I could exert all the narrative control I wanted if I wrote it as a novel. It didn’t take long from that realization to see that I could also plant the seed of this story idea into the historical background from the Wes Craven research. When I did that, all sorts of story elements started to grow and surprise me. That’s when I knew that I was on the trail of something special.

CW: Speaking of—across your novel, there’s a palpable love of film, but specifically, experimental film. Do you watch/appreciate experimental films, or have a history with them outside the Wes Craven connection? How do you think experimental films, or experimental fiction in general, give us something that traditional narratives cannot?

BH: The main connection for me here is through surrealism. For a long time, I’ve had an aesthetic affinity for surrealist art of all kinds. I was introduced to the surrealist movement when I was in college, and that included the bigger names in early surrealist film, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I started looking around more and reading more. That’s when I found Maya Deren, whose films I find shockingly powerful. Part of the shock is that I have such a profound reaction to them when they don’t have a conventional narrative structure. I have seen a lot of experimental film that is more abstract or structural, and I have a difficult time connecting with it. I normally think of myself as a story person, but surrealism does this thing for me; I think the best way to talk about it is to liken it to lyric or poetry. You’ll often hear about prose fiction writers who routinely immerse themselves in poetry, partly as a way of returning to some kind of source or wellspring. Experimental film or fiction like the kind I’m talking about here proceeds by dream or nightmare logic and deals in ultra-dense imagery. I think that when these experiments bend and break narrative rules, they free us from those restrictions temporarily. That freedom can be scary, but it can also be motivating.

CW: I think the The King in Yellow is making a comeback in horror literature, as a somewhat marginalized classic newly rediscovered. What brought you to this particular literary playground in Memento Mori, and do you think it’s important to use art as a primary means to comment on art?

BH: In weird fiction, there are of course a lot of books or manuscripts, like the Necronomicon, that have power over readers and over the world. But I respond even more to the meta device of art that affects the reader. In Chambers’s collection, it’s a play that has this power, and that resonates for me, because I’ve spent most of my life being influenced by art and especially by stories. But I think a lot of it has to do with seeing great examples of other authors putting their spin on The King in Yellow. Chief among these is, of course, Joe Pulver. His work is really second to none when it comes to this sort of alchemy, and his approaches are so varied. I was already reading Joe when True Detective aired, though the references in that first season wind up being more like mild spice than transmogrification. Another factor that influenced me is the peculiar effect that those handful of stories in Chambers’s collection evoke. I think the stories that deal directly with Carcosa and the Yellow Sign always involve a break with reality that is much more oblique than we sometimes read in weird fiction. For Chambers, the weird most often doesn’t manifest as a monstrous or shambling entity. It’s more like a strange but inevitable fold in space-time that fills you with a frisson of dread and regret. It freaks me out, and I wanted to see if I could do it.

CW: I’m a punk rock nerd through and through, and it delighted me to see DIY zines, riot grrl, and a grimy New York straight out of a FEAR song feature strongly in Memento Mori. I think there’s a strong overlap in punk and horror and I think I’m seeing more authors (Matthew M. Bartlett has talked about the DIY work ethic in regards to self-publishing) embrace it. Were these elements included from personal experience, or just a by-product of the time period you were working with? What do you think horror authors (or authors in general) can learn from other artistic mediums, personal or otherwise?

BH: I’m so glad to hear that the punk/DIY/Riot Grrrl elements landed with you, and I say that because I have no deep personal claim to the musical versions of those scenes. I didn’t identify as punk growing up, so that was something I needed to learn a lot about in order to attempt to pull it off. I think any author needs to do her research on a new project, whatever it might be, and it’s in our best interest to get outside ourselves with some regularity. Horror is so often about transgressing and moving beyond boundaries, breaking rules. If I stay in my own lane, I certainly won’t learn anything, but I’ll probably not unsettle anyone else either. I need occasional reminding that my experience is not universal, and learning about punk and Riot Grrrl and NYC in the late-1970s and Japanese Peruvians in American internment camps in WWII helped me keep that in mind.

I think I do identify with a DIY ethos, though, particularly when it comes to film. Some of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had in discovering films have come when I’ve been blown away by a film that was made for next to nothing. I internalized those possibilities and started making my own short films in 2000 or so. I also started paying a lot more attention to micro-budget indie films and underground films as inspiration. The explosion of crowd-funding platforms has turbo-boosted that sort of thing, and that goes for fiction publishing, too. I see authors I very much admire making nuanced choices between traditional publishing (whether small press or larger) and crowd-funding/self-publishing. I think it’s exciting that technology makes these things possible, even while I understand that this same dynamic can make it harder for authors to earn a living.

CW: Word Horde has become a pretty reputable small press. What has the process been like working with them?

BH: Ross Lockhart of Word Horde is amazing. Full-stop. I don’t know how he does what he does, but I am ecstatic that he does it. Ross will not only show up to a convention or festival and run his press table; he will also run writing workshops and pitch sessions. It was at one of these sessions at the 2017 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival where I pitched him Memento Mori. I had read a fair portion of Word Horde’s output by that time, and I had (and have) tremendous respect both for his taste in material and the job he does shepherding his books. If I could place my novel with him, I wanted to do it. Fortunately, Ross was interested. It took me a few months to get him a manuscript I felt good about. He made great suggestions on it, and in fairly short order we settled on the final draft. Ross has great taste in designers, too. I’m overjoyed at Matthew Revert’s cover art. The whole thing has been a joy.

CW: Memento Mori uses a handful of methods in regards to its scares. Can you talk a little about what you think is scary on a practical level, and how the mechanics of these scares are built into a narrative?

BH: With my students, I talk to them about the orchestra of film form; I think something very similar applies to prose fiction, too. Some people will denounce the jump scare for instance, or they turn their nose up at gore, or they can’t abide a bleak or ambiguous ending. All of these are instruments that can be played well or poorly. I am susceptible to any and all of these when they are employed skillfully. For me, they are most powerful when they are embedded in a story about people I’m able to empathize with in some way. They don’t have to be like me at all, but I need that connection to maximize the impact. If you can craft compelling characters, tell a good story, weave a consistent atmosphere, and employ a variety of horror techniques in concert with one another (some light, some heavy), then you get my vote and my money and my eternal respect. Personally, I have a soft spot for violations or paradoxes of time or space. I’m less interested in monsters per se, but you put me in something like the house on Ash Tree Lane, and all of my antennae are quivering.

CW: What authors do you think are doing some of the most interesting work in horror/weird today, and what makes them so interesting?

BH: Because of my specific reading habits, I think I’m not as up on the cutting edge of horror and even the weird as I should be. However, the authors who’ve blown me away recently include the likes of Nadia Bulkin (her collection She Said Destroy) and Carmen Maria Machado (several stories collected in Year’s Best Weird Fiction volumes). These stories are showing me things I have never seen before and mixing those new vistas with powerful evocations of the weird. They’re a sort of one-two gut punch. The bigger category is made up of authors who give me new masterful twists on stories or situations I’ve seen before (but never like this). I’m thinking here of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novellas from Tor, Gemma Files, Jeff VanderMeer, John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud, and Victor LaValle.

CW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Memento Mori was a joy to read and I’m happy to see a new voice join the greater conversation in fiction. I’ll give you the last word, anything you want to say to the Signal Horizon readers before we finish?


BH: Many thanks to you for the kind words about the book and for this opportunity to say a bit more about how it came to be. I think I’ll leave it at that except to say that I am grateful and excited to be able to share that work with your audience! Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows launches on May 28 from Word Horde. Interested readers can find me at www.brianrhauser.com

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