“The Underworld and the Void”
A conversation between authors Philip Fracassi and Daniel Braum.
During the pandemic Philip Fracassi (PF) and I had the opportunity to talk about our short story collections Underworld Dreams and Behold the Void. Now that things are opening up, we’ve decided to share our thoughts with Ink Heist and you. We begin with me asking Philip about his short story collection Behold the Void – Daniel Braum (DB)
DB: Congratulations on moving Behold the Void to Lethe Press. It is a great book and I am glad it is staying in print alongside my projects at Lethe, Underworld Dreams and Spirits Unwrapped and 20 years of Lethe titles. Behold the Void is an intriguing and effective title. I found it stayed with me and was one I turned over in mind long before I had a chance to sit down with the stories inside. So many of the stories feature in one way or another the element of “the unknown”. This steady and expert authorial crafting allows the emotion and the horror of the tales to retain the spotlight as the focus is not on the Who-What-How-or Why of the supernatural. For example, the focus is not on What is happening in the pit in the Horse Thief. Or Where or When the events are occurring in “Fail Safe.” These and other unexplained aspects resonate together with the title of the collection for me. What did you have in mind when deciding on the title. And what was your approach and intention in your depictions of the various “unexplained” aspects in your (much deserved) acclaimed group of stories?
PF: Thanks, Daniel. Regarding the title, I wanted something that set the tone for the stories. I think with the horror genre specifically, more than any other genre, the “tone” is a huge classifier for what the reader can expect. Is this “traditional” horror with established tropes? Is it body horror? Splatterpunk / Hardcore? Lovecraftian? Is it “weird” or “strange” horror with poetic language and ambiguous events? Etc. I’ll also suggest that cover artwork in horror is a huge in establishing the tone of the stories / novel within. That all said, I liked Behold the Void because I believe it gives a sense of ethereal, cosmic stories, but with a focus. “Void” sounds very ambiguous, right? But if YOU are “beholding” it, that’s very specific and grounded. Probably over-thinking it, but that’s how I settled on it, nonetheless.
Regarding the “unexplained” elements, that’s not something I honestly gave a lot of thought to when writing. However, I will say that I firmly believe in the idea that a reader can imagine a much more terrifying image than I could ever hope to describe, so I think giving the reader some agency to decide how they uniquely experience a story is something I definitely adhere to. I want the stories to feel personal.
DB: The story “The Horse Thief” is a stand out in a collection of stand-out stories. I’m thinking about the verisimilitude of the life and adventures of the criminal, Gabino, you presented. And why the story is so engrossing and engaging even before the supernatural element is added into the mix. I feel like there are structural similarities to one of my favorite authors Robert Aickman, an author who coined the term “strange tales” and excelled in presenting engaging stories almost always with an element of the unexplained as we do. I often think of author Peter Straub’s reflections on what he felt makes Aickman’s stories work- the first part of that being how he succeeds in presenting an utterly realistic and compelling “ordinary world” The characters and their lives- their voices and their struggles are down to earth and full of verisimilitude. When the coincidences and unexplained and possibly the fantastical comes in to the story they are supported and believable too. How did you come to portray Gabino and his world? Research? Personal experience? Will you talk about what is not on the page in the story? What did you intend to be the explanation of what was happening in the pit? Or like Aickman, do you prefer not to reveal your process?
PF: I agree with the suggestion that it’s important, for me, to establish a “real” world before introducing horrific / supernatural elements. I like flipping things on their head. My favorite movies are ones that start out as one thing and, around the midpoint, become something else. Best example of this is probably The Cabin in the Woods, but there are lots of examples. From my own work, I’d say “Altar” is probably the best example of this, where I establish something so mundane and nostalgic that the reader is immediately feeling a sense of comfort, of time and place. They’re inserting themselves into the story because I’ve connected strings between their memories and the story’s setting. Then, when the shit hits the fan, so to speak, it’s all that more impactful.
Regarding “The Horse Thief”, that world was created from the root idea of a real-world criminal activity, which is horse butchering (A google search will fill you in). As far as what is explained versus not explained, I’ll defer to my previous answer: Sometimes it’s better to let the reader fill in the blanks.
DB: Motion pictures and the art of screenwriting is a very visual medium. Hollywood products often rely on elements outside a writer’s control to convey emotion and character’s internal worlds such as music and an actor’s performances. Being a screenwriter how did this difference come in to play in creating the stories in Behold the Void? Feel free to tell us in general. And also specifically about your story note on “The Horse Thief”, you mentioned that you receive feedback about the character’s “redemption” at the end of the story, which strikes me as an entirely different take on presenting an “unknown element” in the story. Is Gabino a sympathetic character to you? How much, if at all does an author’s intent on these kinds of things such as whether a character presents as sympathetic or what a character deserves or not is important?
PF: You’re 100% right about screenwriting. As a screenwriter, I’m not thinking so much about creating atmosphere or ambiguity or even tone. Screenplays are essentially a framework, a foundation, upon which MANY other people build a movie. It’s very much a group effort, and a product of multiple artistic visions (director, producer, composer, production designer, actors, etc.). Everyone is involved and everyone ends up having input. So, when it comes to fiction, I think of it much more as a completed vision. When I type, THE END, that’s it. Nothing else is going to touch that story. It’s mine and the readers, period. So two different approaches.
As far as Gabino’s story, and characters in general, I absolutely think about a character’s merit when writing them. Do I want the reader to feel empathy toward this person? Do I want them to like this person? Hate this person? Do I want them to not be totally aware of this person (before it’s too late)? Etc. Part of the ending of “The Horse Thief”, for example, was not so much about creating empathy or making him a sympathetic character, as much as it was about lifting the veil on what it means to be a human, both in this life and whatever comes next. Good or bad, we’re all human beings, and that means we all share certain… rules, I guess. Whether we think it’s fair or not.
DB: In the story notes of Behold the Void you mention that “Coffin” might be the darkest story you have ever wrote. Why is that?
PF: It’s a good question, because I think a lot of readers would have different ideas about what my “darkest” story is (“Altar” would likely get a lot of votes). But for me as a writer, “Coffin” struck me as dark because of it’s insolence. There’s very little redemption for anyone in that story, and the piece is much more about humans being a small part of a larger picture, much more pawns on a chessboard than active participants. It’s a story with a bad attitude, frankly. It’s a pissed-off piece of fiction. At least in my mind.
DB: Going back the element of “author intent” and “reader interpretation” for a minute. What I took from the ending of “The Horse Thief” wasn’t a moment of redemption so I was surprised and interested to read the story notes. I did feel like the ending and ending sequence was a “behold the void” moment. A moment where the character comes face to face with the supernatural – the unexplained supernatural that is larger than him and larger than the story thus far. This is one example of how the title resonated with me as I mentioned in an earlier question. This unique ending, I found effective and this kind of structure fascinates me as a writer and a reader. In your notes you mention when writing the story you set out to have a three-part story each with its own distinct tone. Where in the process did the tone come into play? How important is the tone to your perception of the story and in your work in general? What were the tones you intended in each part? And can you dive a bit of what you mean by each of them?
PF: I agree my stories often end, especially in BTV, with the primary character getting a glimpse of something “beyond”, which again fits in with the title nicely. I think my next collection will have a different theme to some extent. Don’t want to become predictable! Regarding “Horse Thief” – yes — the way that story is sectioned off into parts is very purposeful. One part is very much a crime story. Another is very much a dream-like, weird horror sequence. And the last part is essentially an action sequence that could be in any thriller. I liked the idea of taking the reader on a journey through these different atmospheres, so it’s almost like a lucid dream that you’re part of, flitting between worlds.
For me personally, tone is EVERYTHING. The first thing I think about when writing a story, novel or screenplay, is tone. That sets the table for everything else that occurs, and definitely affects the way I write the story and flesh out the characters. Even the prose is different depending on how atmospheric I want something, or if I infuse dark humor, or if it moves fast, or slow – pacing, in other words. It all starts with the tone I’ve established before typing a word.
DB: I’ve read the 2018 edition of Behold the Void, in the story notes in that edition you talk about have some time and distance from the stories. Did this bring with it objectivity (if we authors are capable of such a thing with our work) in categorizing and analyzing your work? I find it fascinating how structure and author intent can affect “category”. Do you see synchronicities, unintended things in the stories now that some time has passed? Do you ever feel like you “failed” perhaps in your intent for a story but still created something vital and “successful” to a reader on the page?
PF: Honestly, I don’t see the stories much differently now than when I wrote them. “Mother” was my first genre story, the first one I’d ever written, and that was 2014. So it’s not like decades have passed, and this answer may change when I’m older, but right now I feel that each story accomplished what it set out to do. If anything, those stories almost represent an “experimental” stage for me, where I was still tooling around with different ideas, different voices, different styles. I’d like to say I’d settled on that voice, but I think, 20 or so published stories, I’m still refining and defining. There are some stories I’ve written that I think, at the end of the day, failed to do what I wanted them to do. But those stories will never be published! At least not in one of my collections. The ones that ended up in Behold the Void, or in my next collection, Beneath a Pale Sky (Summer 2021, Lethe Press) are ones I feel are successful. Of course, as always, readers may disagree. It happens – but such is the life of a writer!
At this point Philip asks the questions and our conversation shifts focus to the stories of Underworld Dreams. – DB
PF: I found Underworld Dreams to be very appropriately titled. Many of the stories have an almost translucent feel, as if there is a wavering membrane between realities where the actions of your stories take place. As if just below the surface, intrinsically dream-like. Surreal is almost too strong a word, as the stories are incredibly grounded. So, I guess my first question is, when you’re thinking of a story, is it a series of beats, of actions, that are going to take place? Or are you more focused on a certain feeling, a certain vibration, if you will? I wish I could phrase it better but it’s difficult to put into words. Help!
DB: Thank you for kind words about Underworld Dreams, Philip. I’m zeroing in on “below the surface” and “grounded” in my answer as the “key” to achieving the feel of the stories. I learned about Robert Aickman and his stories he calls “strange tales” long after I started writing. However I think his stories illustrate this best. Aickman’s stories are all grounded in the here and now, in our realitiy, in a very specific time with very strong character voices with clear points of view. The other element always present in Aickman’s stories is a sense of more, a sense of weight going on out of view, out of access or beneath the surface as you say, especially when it comes to the unexplained and the supernatural elements that may or may not be present. These are two elements I always aim for too. I think this is a great question and I am not ducking it when I say… all of the above. The first thing that comes to me for many of my stories is setting. Often this is a desire to write about a place. Along with that, I realize as I am thinking about your question, is a “certain feeling” or “vibration” that I want to convey. After that I begin the process of dramatization, which for me is deciding in advance of writing a draft of what will be shown in the story. I usually decide on a few scenes and what will happen in them before writing. I tend to do this in my head and then also on paper. Does that help?! Even the best laid plans are not set in stone as I suspect you know well…
PF: One thing I found fascinating about your work is the extensive research you must put into each piece. Whether it be something you’ve only read about or something experienced, you get the feeling of traveling when reading through these pieces. The settings are global – Belize, Australia, Panama – and the cultures and languages you tap into are countless. Is the exotic backdrop of your stories something you purposely strive for?
DB: I am fortunate to have traveled to the places you mention, so I guess that is a kind of research – not the kind of book research I often think of as research. We as writers have a bank of experiences, I believe. What we do and experience I believe informs us even if those experiences are not thought of or intended as research at the time. I love to do book research too. I try to save articles and books and encyclopedia entries that inspire me as a different sort of bank of ideas. I think most of my research is the non-purposeful kind. The stories I want to tell most become most urgent for me and with those I begin my creative process. I mentioned setting in the last question. I try to create characters and plots intrinsic to the settings and try to deliver stories that can only be told in those settings. While the settings may be exotic to Americans like us, it is my hope that I sometimes land on themes and conflicts that are relatable or even universal in some way.
PF: I think “The Monkey Coat” is one of my favorites in the collection. That, and perhaps the opening story, “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning.” Focusing on “Monkey Coat” for a moment, there’s definitely an evil talisman thing going on, and one of the things I took from it was the idea of inheritance, or perhaps a hereditary curse, from mother-to-daughter. It’s a frightening piece, filled with violence and madness, and I’d like to know if the coat in the story is something these characters have earned, or as I said, is it simply inherited? An unavoidable curse? Also, are the powers of the coat real? Or is it all in their heads?
DB: It is an encouraging thing to hear you like those stories, Philip, thank you. As for “The Monkey Coat”, once I decided I was going to write a story about a monkey fur coat my intention was to deliver a story where the fun of it was the tension between the psychological and the supernatural. I wanted a story where both choices- both potential answers as to what was happening in the story are both there and both fully supported and thus neither would be definitive and any given reader could say and be sure of either. All the questions raised I think is part of the tension and the fun of it. Is June a murderer? Is she a damaged person acting out? Is she being used by the coat? Or is the coat using her? Is the coat a supernatural thing? Or is it an ordinary thing? One or the other? Or both? I think deciding on and landing on an answer is part of the fun of the story. In addition to being a story about the characters it is a story of the coat that has been with them for three generations of women. I hope the story works and has resonance whether one is looking at the coat as an object with powers or just a coat passed along and handed down.
PF: Going back to “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning,” This is one of the more visceral stories I’ve read. The imagery, not only of the bloody fishing scenes, but the monstrous nature of the characters during a transformation (or hallucination, if you want to look at it that way). What was the impetus for such a disturbing, sinister take on the rawness of human emotions, the bloody truth of relationships?
DB: When I was writing the story one of my favorite short stories, “Because Their Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee was on my mind. That story is about a repentant seal hunter. I was zeroing in on telling a story about shark fishing, but I didn’t want to re tell “Because Their Skins Are Finer” or hit too hard on an anti-fur or anti-hunting theme. Like “The Monkey Coat”, I think one could see anti-cruelty elements present, however I think being on the nose, black and white, or overly direct about themes has the potential to detract from good storytelling. The scene where our narrator sees the sister and her shark teeth on the street was the image that came early on and the image that the story was built around. Was that real or a hallucination as you mentioned was the center premise from which I was working. I looked for the some of the dark truths in life and relationships that I could build the characters with. I know these are the things that impact us, that reach us when we are reading.
On surface the story is about a man who does not ever want to leave sight of land the exploration of the why of that paid off for this story. I also figure I will mention that I read the story in its entirety on one of my previous appearances on the Ink Heist podcast so one may surf on over and have a listen if they wish !
PF: Your stories are very much open to reader interpretation. Not so much in the form of ambiguous endings that leave the reader dangling, but more in the sense that most of the stories could be read in completely different ways: On one read, taken literally, the stories are very much grounded in monstrous horrors, curses and creatures and sinister, living shadows. On another read, you could take the same actions and see them as being purely psychological, madness and distorted memories, despair and hope and loss. It brings to mind such writers as Robert Aickman, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Lucius Shepard. All this to ask: Who are your inspirations? And if you had to choose, what authors would you say you were tethered to when writing? From whom to do you feel, or take, the most inspiration?
DB: Another excellent question. It is inspiring to be used in the same sentence as these authors. Angela Carter is an author I’ve read the least of and it is a pleasure to come to her work story by story at this point in my life. Tanith Lee and Lucius Shepard were early inspirations for me and I find I speak of them often. So, I’ll focus on Robert Aickman in this answer. Right around the time my first short story collection, The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales was coming out I heard author Peter Straub talking about Aickman and his short story “The Swords”. It was an important landmark for me. Lucius Shepard and Tanith Lee each contributed something foundational and important to me as a writer though it wasn’t something I was conscious of at the time when reading them. Reading Aickman differed for me in that what the experience was giving me I was very conscious of from the start. Listening to Peter Straub and reading Aickman’s the Swords introduced me to the term “strange tales”. I learned the kind of work that I was doing had a lineage and place in a bigger picture. This was a very exciting and confidence strengthening thing for me as a writer. Most of the stories in Underworld Dreams were written after this experience. I feel at the very least it has made me a more confident writer. Also a writer more in control, before this point I think I was writing in a more instinctive way and after it I was coming at stories in a more deliberate way.
PF: My final question is this: What do you strive for with each piece? Put another way, if someone could put down a book after reading one of your stories, what would you want them to be feeling?
DB: I’d describe the experience akin to having visited the Twilight Zone. I’d hope it was a strange and fun ride landing on whether they saw the story as a psychological or supernatural one. In addition to the darkness and sense of horror that comes with that I’d hope they’d experienced a sense of wonder and dare I say…hope, yes maybe just a bit, just a ray of hope in the darkness. After all the world can be cruel yet it also can be beautiful especially when taking a wander off the lighted path.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Philip Fracassi is the author of the award-winning story collection, Behold the Void, which won “Best Collection of the Year” from both This Is Horror and Strange Aeons Magazine.
His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Dark Discoveries, Cemetery Dance and others.
Philip’s work has been favorably reviewed in The New York Times, LOCUS Magazine, Rue Morgue and many other magazines, blogs and review sites. The New York Times called his work “terrifically scary.”
As a screenwriter, his feature films have been distributed by Disney Entertainment and Lifetime Television, with several projects in various stages of development.
For more information on his books and screenplays, visit his website at www.pfracassi.com. You can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram (pfracassi) and Twitter (@philipfracassi).
He lives in Los Angeles, California, and is represented by Elizabeth Copps at the Maria Carvainis Agency.
Daniel Braum is the author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance 2016), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017), the chapbook Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016) and the novella The Serpent’s Shadow (Cemetery Dance 2019) Underworld Dreams is his third collection and was released from Lethe Press in September 2020 and is out now as an Audio Book. His novel Servant of the Eighth Wind is coming from Lethe Press in Summer of 2022.
He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Shivers 8 anthology to the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow. He is the host of the Night Time Logic series. And the annual New York Ghost Story Festival. He can be found at https://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com