Greetings from the Ether,
It is with great pleasure that the Gehenna Post has received the opportunity to interview Bram Stoker-nominated author James Dorr, anticipating the release of his upcoming novel-in-stories, TOMBS: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth, releasing June 1st of 2017. It is rare that an author comes along who has not just the ability to craft an articulate, scrupulous narrative, but to also build a world refreshing and unique. Dorr does just this with his newest book, propelling himself even further as an author and creator. We will release our full review for TOMBS the day the novel releases, but until then, let’s dive into the catacombs of the Old City. Hope you brought your chadors.
CD: We will start with a few topics that are relating to you as an author, before we get to the juicier, directly-related-to-TOMBS questions. Your writing style is very poetic, even romantic in many instances, often reading like that of old gothic works. What author inspired your writing most and how did you find your unique voice?
JD: I usually cite four as having the most influence on me: Ray Bradbury who injected beauty into even his darkest work; Edgar Allan Poe as the master of the combination of love and death, eros and thanatos, that informs a fair bit of my own fiction — and, indeed, is a driving force in TOMBS; Allen Ginsberg for poetry, in combining the ugliness of everyday life with the beatific along with his use of what he considered natural rhythms; and Bertolt Brecht for his theories of “epic theatre,” of artistic distance but at the same time an emotional intimacy as in a play like Mother Courage. I will try to make my style vary, however, depending on the kind of story I’m writing. That of TOMBS, for instance, is purposely baroque – “literary” and lush – while for, say, a noir crime story I might choose a very different style (as an example, I might recommend my previous book, The Tears of Isis, a collection in which I think readers may find a variety of styles).
CD: If you had to choose a favorite author and/or work, who and what would it be? Why?
JD: With TOMBS in mind, possibly my favorite novel of all time is Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, an imagined account of the colonization of Mars which also uses a mosaic or “novel-in-stories” construction, combining stand-alone short stories with vignettes to create a novel of epic implication – and more successfully, I believe, than had he used a more standard continuous narrative style as found in most novels. Also, specifically in horror, I often cite Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which (perhaps by coincidence) is also a mosaic novel, in its case pieced together from such diverse elements as journal entries, private letters, and newspaper accounts (e.g., for the last, the account of a ship’s running aground near Whitby, in England).
CD: If you could give advice to a young author (as many of our readers are), what would be the most important counsel you could offer?
JD: There is the usual, don’t quit your day job. But a better term for this is persistence. Success generally comes slowly if at all, but if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s worth the effort. Also read a lot and not just fiction, and not just familiar American or European authors, but get a feeling of how others did it, in differing cultures and in the past as well as the present. And then as a final, personal note, try writing a little poetry too: it does wonders in helping work with description, especially in a concise manner, not to mention just getting an increased appreciation for the sound of the words you use.
CD: Now, for what we’ve all been waiting for. The juicy questions. We will avoid as many spoilers as possible. Without further ado, here is the first juicy question: TOMBS establishes its own mythos throughout the duration of the work. Each story seems to expand upon the last, adding events into legend and consistently remembering every occurrence beforehand. Why did you choose a narrative that fluctuates in this unorthodox way, and how did it help you with writing the collection?
JD: TOMBS began as a series of short stories with a common setting, the newer ones building on the older as I got more curious, exploring more parts of this world and the societies in it. But at some point I realized they seemed to “want” to come together, rather like the stories in books like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or, as noted before, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. That is, even if complete in themselves, they seemed to be part of something larger, in this case a sort of future history of a people already aware of its approaching doom, if not in this lifetime, at best in no more than a few generations. That’s far enough, then, that one needn’t despair, to strive to live only in the moment, but nothing that one accomplishes is going to be long remembered either. Yet legends still are, somehow, created – perhaps through some larger need of humanity – and these are the legends presented here. Ones that, in having created this world, I felt myself compelled to recast now as parts of a novel, as chapters that (hopefully) remain intensive, tales of individual characters seeking to cope with an increasingly unfriendly world, but together forming a greater story: that of the dying world itself.
CD: The ghouls, mutated beasts that eat the flesh of the dead, are terrifying in every appearance they have, crawling their ways into the mind of the reader with their blue torches and snarls. Something that makes them so horrifying is the fact that they are sentient. These monsters are not your stereotypical groaning and bumbling beasts, but rather unfortunate humans who were dealt a bad hand. Their characters liken to the undead in Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. They also abide by a universal law, in regards to what they can or can’t eat, leading them to ransack corpse-trains headed for the Tombs. Our questions are, why make the ghouls sentient? Why give them humanity? And who created the laws that they follow and why do they follow them so fervently?
JD: The ghouls, as I see them, once were human, but forced to the outskirts of society. Left behind in the ruins of cities beginning to collapse in on themselves, over time they evolved (or devolved) into a form better suited for survival without the protections that “normal” people had come to rely on. In one place, for instance, they’re described as having skins “as hard as horn,” toughened to withstand heat and sun, including radiation let through a depleted ionosphere, as well as acidic, pollution-laden rains. But inside they have evolved as well by becoming carrion-eaters, eaters of flesh already partly digested through putrescence, thus saving more energy for their survival. It is who they are – like human vultures (it’s no coincidence the biggest birds today, including condors, live at least in part on carrion too). As for the Necromancers, who give them their law, no one is sure quite what they really are – perhaps the wisest of the outcasts whose evolution took a different path – but there is the one law that can’t be broken: that one may eat people already dead, but cannot kill living people for food – because as part of their survival ghouls are prolific. They have many children, many of whom, of course, die in childhood or young adulthood, but if these survived by deliberately hunting people for food, then people could be driven to extinction. And with that, the ghouls’ food supply would be gone. .
CD: The world of TOMBS is a barren wasteland where the sun has grown so hot that its toxic rays can mutate and corrupt human flesh. Thus, the humans wear suits, like the still-suits in Frank Herbert’s Dune, called chadors to help them with the terrible climate. What influenced your decision when creating this dystopian world? What inspired the intricacies of the societal cultures that develop from existing in this harsh setting?
JD: Chadors, to my mind, may not necessarily be quite that elaborate, but more analogous to the garb nomads wear now in, say, the Arabian or Sahara deserts, augmented by “day masks” to protect faces more completely, and additional broad-brimmed hats for extra shade. But then, unlike in Dune, people also avoid going out in the day at all if they are able, adapting instead to nocturnal lifestyles. The term itself comes from the body and head-encompassing shawls many Iranian women are required to wear for modesty — for whatever reason these were in the news at the time I was writing one of the stories so I appropriated the term. But also, including for the world itself, there is an allegorical component. Pollution, for instance, is a problem even now, and whole towns in the past have become uninhabitable because of it (and not always that far past, as with the water in Flint, Michigan). Similarly, while in TOMBS the increasing heat is presumably due to a premature aging of the sun, slowly beginning the process of its becoming a red giant, global warming (albeit by other means) is in the news now.
CD: Towards the end of the collection, a “last armada” is mentioned. It was difficult to distinguish throughout the novel just when and where this world was based. Was it thousands of years in the past in an alternate timeline? Maybe in the future? Perhaps on a different planet? Yet when this armada is mentioned, it carrying off the last humans who could escape the dying Earth, it becomes clear that this is indeed the future of our own Earth. Can you delve a little more into this last armada and what it entails for the survivors who were stranded on Earth?
JD: The “great space armada [that] took some away from the Earth entirely” is mentioned in the Entr’Acte, between the third and fourth sections of TOMBS (the book as a whole is arranged in five major sections, following the five-act structure of classical drama), by the ghoul-narrator Mara. This is something that presumably happened a long time before the stories in the novel, when astronomers first began to realize that something was wrong with the sun. Nothing more is said of it, but one might guess that this exodus took a vast amount of resources, and even then could only include a relatively small portion of humanity, most likely only the most wealthy and the most powerful people. This was followed by a war among those who remained, presumably to apportion the depleted resources left behind, which resulted in the first splittings of people into different, semi-exclusive societies, including the first separation of those who were “normal” from those who would eventually become the ghouls.
One purpose of this Entr’Acte is to offer a snippet of an even earlier history than in the legends that make up the main chapters of TOMBS. But this in turn is played against the narrative of a “Ghoul-Poet,” one as advanced as far in the future – at a time now when all people have died – as the tale of the Entr’Acte is in the past, who is trying to collect these legends to discover what made humans human. The hoped-for effect should be that of an “ubi sunt,” or “where are they now,” story set as an introduction to the separate sections or “acts,” to serve as a “glue” to bind them together. But also to serve as a cap to end the larger story.
CD: Nearly all of the culture in TOMBS is new and refreshing. The language remains for the most part, universal. Out of curiosity, why the French interspersed throughout the piece? In instances such as the mention of, z’étoile, and the use of words like, monsieur, ballonnets, etc. There are also Latin terms like, animus, used to describe the spirit. So why these languages and not others?
JD: Some of this may be purely whimsy – part of the reason I wrote the TOMBS stories, even before the idea of the novel, was for my own enjoyment, but also to test out ways of writing, and how to bring disparate facts in from various sources to solve story problems. The French as such came about when I began to wonder about what actual river might have become the one that flows between the necropolis and the New City. There were three prospects – even though, in “real life,” there might have been tectonic shifts, I wanted a major river today that flowed for the most part from north to south (thus eliminating, say, the Amazon or the Nile) – the Mississippi, the Irrawaddy, and the Mekong Rivers, and for various reasons (mostly topographical) I chose the Mekong. Meanwhile, though, I imagined a civilization that once may have had a common language and, when it broke up, that language remained as a literary language of sorts for the more elite, somewhat as Latin had in Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. And the colonial power that once claimed what was then called Indo-China, including the Mekong delta, was France so . . . why not French (thus, for example, Delphinion now, in “Raising the Dead,” can communicate with a Necromancer by using “the formal French”)?
But another problem throughout the novel is that of the “soul,” its relation to the body, its various parts, and how they’re related to one another. What is death, exactly? This comes up first in a rigorous way in the second story-chapter, “The Beautiful Corpse,” but is important elsewhere too. As it happens, for TOMBS the schematic I used is from Vodoun, or Voodoo, the Creole religion of Haiti (which also brings in Creole French, in z’étoile) which in turn is based partly on Roman Catholicism. Thus, as in Catholicism, there’s an animal soul (for which I use the Latin, animus) as well as an “immortal soul” which, because it also includes ideas of the mind and the will, I usually refer to as the psyche (thus zombies in Haitian belief have the first returned to them, but not the second, as do the wealthy man’s, Gombar’s, six servants in “The Beautiful Corpse”), while Vodoun also adds the z’étoile, or fate, that can guide a soul through more than one incarnation, and thus introduces the idea of a love that can last through more than a single lifetime (or possibly wait for a future lifetime when a couple only then meets).
CD: Now a question we have been waiting to ask. Minor spoiler alert warning. There are quite a few scenes, especially within the first few stories, that delve into the topic of necrophilia. This is a topic many may find disturbing and I implore everyone who reads this interview to read TOMBS before freaking out about my next comment. The necrophilia in TOMBS is explored and detailed in a way that nearly makes the acts romantic. Romanticism is a recurring theme throughout the collection and the romanticizing of the dead often the underlining theme of the piece as a whole. There is a type of religious introspection towards the dead in TOMBS. How did you accomplish the task of making such a disgusting topic beautiful in its own way? And why?
JD: As suggested above, in some ways the stories in Tombs may be my guilty pleasures, in this case a means of experimenting with pushing things to extremes – and still, just maybe, getting away with them. I think in this case, what works is that in the first of these stories the protagonist, Angar, is a sympathetic character and, however bizarre the method he uses, he has a noble purpose. What he does is for love. (And his tragedy is his assistant has loved him all along, so he could have had her love for the asking, but that’s z’étoile for you.) Part of Angar’s charm, I think though, is that socially he’s among the lowest of the low. Think of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” So in the story that follows that one, I thought I’d see what would happen with a protagonist of a higher status, in this case an embalmer in the Tombs. Here I think, although he begins with a similar purpose, it starts to go bad – he becomes obsessive – and what gives the story in this case a “redeeming social value” is his beginning realization, at the very end, of what he’s become. (Then these two lead us to “Mangol the Ghoul,” who is simply very close to insane, but that’s another matter. . . .) I will say, though, that these are specific stories that worried me, that they might deter potential publishers, and I’m grateful that Elder Signs Press has been willing to take a chance on them with me.
CD: Do you plan on expanding upon this universe? If so, what future projects do you have?
JD: In addition to the stories here, there are other stories that I’ve written in the setting of Tombs, some that just didn’t quite fit within the outline for the novel and some that I’ve written since (for various reasons, finding a publisher for this book took a number of years). An example of the latter, in fact, called “River Red” and set in the Port City at the river’s mouth, is in my The Tears of Isis collection, while three others are in an earlier collection, Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret. So on a sort of back burner is the possibility of, not a sequel to the novel, but just a collection of more of the stories including new ones, perhaps with additional author comments on both Tombs and its world and where the extra stories might fit in. However, I think that would depend on Tombs itself selling extremely well, so a potential publisher could see there would already be a market for it, and the way the world of books is right now I don’t think that will be overly likely.
CD: Are there any specific works that inspired TOMBS? The piece shares many different genres, from dystopian to gothic and science fiction to horror. What genre would you consider it to fall in?
JD: In terms of structure and scope, I’ve already mentioned Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. And there’s another I could add, a now obscure book by David Bunch called Moderan of a far-future Earth in which the elite have become mostly cyborgs. But as for the feeling, that’s harder to pin down. Some epics, for instance, speak of or imply a past, lost golden age from which it’s now all downhill, and the idea comes up as well in Hindu mythology, where we find ourselves in the Kali Yuga, the last of a cycle of declining eras, waiting to end so the process can start anew. Perhaps, though, a specific work would be Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, first published in 1485, about King Arthur and the knights of the round table, following them through various adventures, but all leading ultimately to the destruction of Camelot. And with quite a bit of romance in it too. Then the second part, and this also perhaps something that made Tombs take a long time to get published too, I’m not sure it falls into any one specific genre. I think Amazon places it in “Horror Literature & Fiction,” as well as “Dystopian,” “Science Fiction & Fantasy,” and “Literature & Fiction” while on my blog I’ve keyworded it variously as Horror, Science Fantasy, and Dark Romance.
CD: On a final note, TOMBS is clearly a multi-layered, meticulous work. What hurdles did you face as an author when writing such a work, and how did it evolve throughout the writing process?
JD: Part of this may be addressed in the fourth question, on establishing the mythos, and the ones on foreign languages (especially) and necrophilia. Whimsy and guilty pleasures. One of the hurdles I think was just not getting lost, with the way around that being taking down notes as I went along. In religion/mythology in particular, I copied down almost everything said about parts of the soul, and made a point in some stories of making slight changes (one story, for instance, might refer to “the will,” another to psyche) since over the years at least slight heterodoxies would likely arise. I wrote down the names of the months of the year (and noted these were used in the New City, but ghouls still used the old names that we use). That is, I tried to have fun with the details in TOMBS: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth – but to be sure I gave details as well, because these are the things readers will hold on to, the fleshing out that makes a world become real.
Born in Florida, raised in the New York City area, in college in Boston, and currently living in the Midwest, James Dorr is a short story writer and poet specializing in dark fantasy and horror, with forays into mystery and science fiction. His The Tears of Isis was a 2014 Bram Stoker Award® finalist for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection, while other books include Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance, Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, and his all poetry Vamps (A Retrospective). He has also been a technical writer, an editor on a regional magazine, a full time non-fiction freelancer, and a semi-professional musician, and currently harbors a cat named Triana.
Catch James this year in our Year’s Best Body Horror 2017 Anthology, with his story “Flesh.”
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