C. Derick Varn interviews Joe Pulver Sr.
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is an author, editor, and poet, who general works within the horror fiction, noir fiction / hardboiled, and dark fantasy genres. He lives in Germany.
C. Derick Varn: You recently edited A Season in Carcosa and have written many, many prose poems and short stories based on the The King In Yellow, what specifically about Chamber’s four tales gets to you so profoundly?
Joe Pulver: Before I encountered Chambers as a teen, Bloch and Poe set me up for madness, madness, and madness, and what’s behind the mask. Montessor and the narrator in “A Tell-tale Heart” (‘smiling faces sometimes pretend’), and Jack the Ripper must have appeared normal to those around them. Norman Bates, Ed Gein, these monsters are among us and they look and act just like we do, or nearly so. That’s scary as hell to me. So Chambers comes along and taps the 16-year-old kid on the shoulder with his masks and madness and it bites deep. Add, the madness comes from the KIY play itself. The power of words to transform your reality, can anything be more appealing than that? Not to me.
Next add the mystery of Carcosa. Is it a true alternate reality? And there’s the mystery in the play. We get bits and pieces, clues, but what’s really going on? Now we have elements that are not resolved and they cling to us and we are compelled think about them. That’s what hooked me so deep, or the largest chunk.
C.D.V.: You have also stated in many places that you see the The King in Yellow as entirely outside of the Cthulhu Mythos. What specifically do you see separating Carcosa out?
J.P.: HPL tipped his hat to Chambers by including mentions of the King in Yellow and the pallid mask, etc., in a text or two, but he never concretely wove them into the Mythos he was slowly creating. Robert M. Price makes a good case for HPL and his use in “The Whisperer in Darkness”, but taking Chambers work in that direction holds no appeal for me. When Derlerth came along and incorporated Chambers creations wholesale into the Mythos he had in mind, I completely turned away.
The Mythos is too-well defined and I want my Carcosa and KIY to remain mysterious. And Derleth wants the work of Chambers to be just another item for inclusion, a mere twig in the nest, or a moon circling the Mythos, not a thing/sun unto itself. As part of that whole, the KIY loses a great deal of its allure, and is lessened for this reader. Bottom line, Chambers creations are about FELT and wondered about, not explanation.
C.D.V.: What do you make of Chamber’s own intertextual relationship with Ambrose Bierce?
J.P.: If intertextuality is ‘in the eye of the beholder’, and to me, it is, Bierce, in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haïta the Sheppard”, is the keystone of Chambers creation. The dead city of Carcosa, immortal but dead, becomes a dim and melancholy alternate reality and would not have been born in the work of RWC without Bierce’s fingerposts. And Bierce’s ghost narrator becomes a character (in Chambers’ hands contaminated and transformed by the Yellow Sign, or by reading or viewing the cancerous play) trapped in deliriums of nihil and ennui, haunting beauty, and eerie torments, and thus is doomed to enter the ‘dim’ realm of Carcosa and become, dim and thin, a ghost as well.
In Bierce’s “Haïta the Sheppard” we have Hastur as a name and the idea of life as a pasture doomed to “change to silence and decay”. Again, our narrator is doomed and sentenced to silence and decay as well.
Atop this base, RWC blends in Poe, the influence of the French Decadents, and to a degree, the disquieting transfigurations of the Symbolists, to build his haunted and eerie reality.
C.D.V.: In my mind, I find you to be a very poetic, almost lyric writer. What poetry particularly moves you and do you think writers of weird tales would do well to read more poetry?
J.P.: Depending on mood, all kinds, but generally free verse, post-modern, and hybrid work. Alice Fulton, Larissa Szporluk, and Susan Stewart are among my long list of favorites. My gods are E. E. Cummings and Lamantia. I also have a rather large interest in 20th Century French poetry. On my poetry shelves there are two poetic bibles – E. E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 (edited by George Firmage) and World Poetry (edited by Washburn, Major, and Fadiman; Norton 1998).
All writers should be reading poetry, it’s a significant, if not fundamental, instrument in a writer’s toolbox, and yes, for all the obvious reasons, weird fiction writers would do well to read as much poetry as they can get their paws on. Look at the work of Theodora Goss, Ann K. Schwader, and Catherynne Valente (to name but a few!), and you’ll see what poetry can bring to the page in the hands of a gifted writer.
C.D.V.: What do you think of Fulton’s fractal politics? Do you think that idea of mutation is applicable to genre fiction?
J.P.: I have read an article or two on the subject, but haven’t read Fulton’s book, so I can’t comment in depth. When it comes to examinations of the whys and turns of aesthetics and academic investigation, I’m a bumpkin – in part, by choice.
I’m one who loves the magic trick, but doesn’t want to know how it’s done. I don’t watch the “how they made the film” bonus features on DVDs, as I’m afraid too “much behind the scenes” will spoil the work itself for me. Parts of that come from being a poor student, and parts from Jack Kirby. Some would say Kirby’s work is not humanly correct, and that may be accurate in one sense, but its FELT is perfect and as a vehicle for storytelling (in its own universe) it doesn’t need to be explained or dissected. For me, everything the reader needs in on the page. I want to “know” as much as I need to understand the work, but I don’t want to take it apart and see the guts.
Genre fiction has been mutating for a long time, perhaps since day one, and as the lines blur and the barriers crumble, I hope we can leave behind the tags and put-downs and let all fiction be what it is, fiction.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent attempt by writer’s like Michael Chabon to make genre fiction more accessible?
J.P.: “Entertainment . . . means junk.” Those who slap us w/ that can go jam a hot poker up their backsides. Last I heard, folks like Willie the Bard and Beckett (and let’s add that LOLITA tome, or Steppenwolf—or Moby-dick) have had some lasting entertainment value. Lots of entertainment in Twain, Hugo, London, and Shelly’s Frankenstein. Simple fact is, good fiction/work is good fiction/work, and bad is bad. And some form of POP up-in-it does not demean it either.
We don’t need Chabon to save us. Look at Kiernan, or any one of a number of writers—many who have been around for years—decades, tagging them as this or that is wrong, if not criminal. CRK’s The Red Tree is a great piece of “Literature” and it’s through the power and magic of works like hers that the barriers will collapse. 100 years from now these critical put downs—that’s a red-headed stepchild, will not be worth a rat’s backend. Just look at Cisco!
Tags are handy for bookstores, libraries, and critics, not to judge the merit of a work!! !
C.D.V.: Do you think the weird tale has any necessary philosophical implications?
J.P.: Necessary? No more or less than any other stripe of fiction.
C.D.V.: What do you think are common traps for those who work with pre-established cannons like the Lovecraftian mythos?
J.P.: Top of the pops, to me, are –
Primarily, not thinking outside the box and spitting out more of the same. If you want to, or need to, use the contents of the box, repackage it, do something adventuresome with it—that’s why you have a voice. Having a new idea that fits the menu is great, and I’m all for it, but perhaps it might be better served on different dinnerware, say something “you” crafted?
Trying to write “just” like the source writer is another. Could be a gas if you nail it, once.
A canon can be a crutch; tons of fun, but a crutch that can limit or hobble your range of mobility nonetheless. You walk in the shoes of someone else for too long you might forget who “you” are. Readers, or at least this one, want ideas, craft, and VOICE—yours. I already know HPL’s, what’s yours?
Look at the masters, say, Kiernan, and Barron, and Cisco, to name but a few in the current sea of mighty talent, see how (and what) they create from canonical source material when they use it. There are a lot of miles left on HPL, and Frankenstein, and maybe even vampires, but that’s up to your vision and talent to do it right.
C.D.V.: What do you see as the philosophical concerns that are most important in your own writing?
J.P.: Never stopped to think about it. Off the top of my head –
1) What is death, the ‘black vast’? Why do we look and what do we learn/discover/see if we do and live to tell the tale?
2) Truth. Who owns it? Is it good for us? Is there any in a mouthful of lies?
3) Is there a possibility of transformation and/or salvation in this dance? All you need is love—really? Will it give you wings or be a net when you’re on the heights of despair?
4) Are we up against chance and our own necessity, or fate? Are we pawns, captains, or merely grains of sand, swept and raked by forces beyond our understanding.
C.D.V.: I have read that you try to approach each story almost as a poem as in it is self-contained and its voice must modulate greatly from one individual work to another. Do you find that maintaining such a varied voice requires any special attention? Do you have to fight slipping into a consistent voice?
J.P.: For the most part, yes, every text is its own self-contained work and each one tells me what its voice is. Perhaps the best example of this might be, I have 3 tales that feature Pulver and Dylan as characters out wandering the world, yet the voice in each text is different. In the triptych we see the pair in different eras, settings (the American desert, Carcosa, etc.). To my mind these are chapters, completely separate events, yet part of one life cycle.
When you get up tomorrow you’ll shower and put on new clothes—perhaps they’re a new style, you’re you, but you might look different, maybe act differently due to any number of reasons, so my characters get a new voice for each new event, journey. Your mom dies, your heart’s lexicon changes, expands, you grow up in a one-horse dorp and move to NYC to attend college, you get adjusted/remade/added to. Same core you, but remade/remodeled. Same in my work, they change, their voice changes.
The voices come easy. Most often, the first sentence (or the last, I often begin w/ the last sentence or paragraph), or the character’s name tells me everything I need to know. After that, it’s just me up on the bridge with my horn, typing as fast as I can with two fingers, hoping I get it all down before I lose it.
C.D.V.: You have been publishing actively for well over a decade now, but you have only finished two novels. Are you particularly attracted to the short form? What does short form work demand of you?
J.P.: I’ve drifted where the cards carried me. There would have been more novels had things played out in a different manner. I worked on two novels (one featuring Ziggy Stardust as the main character and one featuring Spawn) while trying to obtain permission, but they were scraped when I knocked on locked doors. Tossed out two more (80, 90 pages in) as I lost interest in the ideas.
In the beginning I had little interest in the short form. Reading DUNE, LOTR, Moby-Dick, and Gormengast, at 13/14 or so, made me long for fat books, rich worlds with lots of characters, and at a younger age, MARVEL Comics helped to instill this with their long/continuing storylines and interwoven universe. I viewed things like Conan, John Carter, Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, Vance’s Dying Earth, Holmes, as episodic chapters of a whole. I was also hooked on Doc Savage, SF, and crime novels back then, so novels (and series that I read as if they were novels) became my go to pleasures.
There were certainly short works I loved—some as vital as any thing I’ve ever read (Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign”, Bloch’s “A Toy for Juliette”, Poe’s “ACoA”), but I was a dog hunting new novels and shorts were just quick pit stops.
When my first novel came out and received a less than friendly review or two I stopped writing for two+ years. A few friends kept pushing, gently, until I returned. A couple of the reviews said the novel was at least 50 pages to long and I should learn to “shut up”. So when I came back to writing, I wrote short, thinking, hoping the darts might be softer.
As I continued to write short, my writing opened up (due in part to my friendship with Cisco and his influence) and a few things from my early reading became important to me. Poetry, not just what it says, but how it says it visually, and Jack Kirby (and to a slightly lesser degree, Last Exit To Brooklyn and Cohen’s Beautiful Losers). All use the page as a canvas for their style of storytelling and I began to look at the page in the same manner. As I can’t use color and I’m not an artist, the page’s “white space”, fonts, and punctuation, must speak for the tools I lack. With some luck, even a simple text like the following, gains an underlying tension due to its use of the page as a canvas.
The howling sun, far from this place with no hope for tomorrow, running with things that fear what the cold moon brings.
Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.
Coffee gone cold.
Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.
The Black Goat.
Sat there every night this summer. Staring at the blackness. Listening to the sound of the empty road.
A yard without children’s toys.
The withered dreams gone, over some rainbow.
Captain Jack didn’t follow.
His wife followed the lullaby into a dream. Something soft and quiet he hoped. Tried to tell himself.
Tried to penetrate it, like it was a year or a river.
Three years of nights. Centuries of days. No sleep. No solitude. Rain and winter and dust were his bread.
Tried to get under the skin of that stone.
The look in his eye said he wasn’t convincing.
What the character wants to say, and how the text I’m writing wants to speak/unwind/stroll on the page are the only demands I listen to these days.
I should also say, after having 3 collections of short works released, and one in the oven for 2013, I’ve grown very fond the short form as a way to express things/ideas/tales I don’t believe would translate into a novel-length work.
C.D.V.: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
J.P.: Thanks for asking me to do this, Derick. It was fun.