Today I’m talking to Daniel Braum about his short story “The Monkey Coat” from the recently released Nightscript 4 anthology edited by C.M. Muller. You can read part one of our conversation on his blog, where we discussed my story, “The Thing in the Trees.”
JP: “The Monkey Coat” deals with duality and identity, which brought to mind, for me, Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever June tries to be with Andrew (who is referred to as a good guy), she loses time and wakes up next to Randall (the bad guy). Whether these connections were intentional or not, I’m curious: to what degree do you take inspiration from classic horror fiction, and if you do, then how do you take that inspiration and use it to create something new and fresh?
DB: In “The Monkey Coat”, and most of my fiction, there is no direct, conscious inspiration. I intentionally added the word “conscious” because I’ve read many stories of people “doing strange things in the night”, things that are different or opposite from their “day time”. So I see how the story readily evokes Jeykll and Hyde.
One story that comes to mind with this question is “The Saga of the Alien Costume” storyline from Spider Man comics in the 1980s. In those comics when Peter Parker is wearing a new black costume he becomes stronger and the costume is seemingly the cure for all his problems.
However he becomes more violent, experiences lost time, and finds himself waking up wearing it when he had no memory putting it on. It is ultimately revealed that the costume is more than is perceived and has been affecting him. While it is a very different story and kind of story than “The Monkey Coat” I can not help but notice that the similarities are there. I can’t think of one at the moment but I am sure there are many folk tales from around the world that are also similar.
One approach to making a classic monster (or something classic) fresh is to intentionally very one of the key elements of the trope. Terry Bisson told my class that as an exercise every new author should try to write a story with a “classic” monster in it and make it their own by changing up one of the tenants in it. My attempt at doing this is the story “Resolution Seventeen” in my collection The Wish Mechanics. Especially at the time I wrote the story vampire stories were particularly tired. I tried to play with the elements of the effect of sunlight and the need for blood. When thinking these through and exploring and pushing how they could be dramatized, I came up with something different. So while the story might still be “horror” because it is a vampire story it steered towards science fiction because of the context and the choices the characters were faced with.
Somethings that keeps stories fresh to me (both as a writer and reader) are reversals of expectations and subversions of tropes. I’m not talking about stories where there is a big “reversal” or “water cooler moment” or reveal that has almost become a television show trope. I have been learning about the horror genre and its history to have a better idea of just what was and what is thought of as a horror story in order to know the tropes and expectations. I knew very little of this when I started writing but I feel educated myself in this way is allowing myself to write with greater awareness and control, be it in a “standard form” or an intentional subversion or exploration of the form. The film “It Follows” is one of my favorite examples of a story that plays with genre, expectation, subversion, and form. The movie on its surface looks like and appears to be structured like a teen-aged slasher or jump-scare but it pushes and subverts common expectations and norms of such a generic (or standard form of such a) movie at every turn. The Neon Demon is another of my favorite movies that plays with expectations and in doing so makes something that could have been common and generic into something fresh and original. The characters in the Neon Demon are depicted in shades of grey differing widely from where a generic story might keep the characters on a familiar arc.
JP: This story also offers some unanswered questions about the identities of Franklin and Randall that led me to wonder whether they are somehow the same person. When you write a story where there are mysteries left open or unexplained, do you typically know the “answer” to the mystery in great detail (even if you don’t share it), or are there some things still mysterious even to you? How important is this sense of mystery in a horror story?
DB: I really love this question. I’ve done my best to try to answer it directly without a huge tangent on Robert Aickman.
Franklin (a man June was involved with and the murder victim we are told about on the opening of the story,) and Randall (one of the men June is dating) are not intended to be literally the same actual person but they are intended to be presented as the same “kind” of person; both men that are harmful to June that she seeks to disengage from. They are both men that do not respect women, men that do not respect June, yet men that June is still drawn to. Change can be defined as being faced with the same choices (or same men) over and over and making different decisions. They were included in the story to define the June’s choices and what is at stake for her.
As to how important is a sense of mystery to a horror story the short answer is I think it is a matter of taste. I’ve noticed in what I am referring to as “traditional” or “standard form” horror stories mystery is not an essential element. A horror story will still be a horror story even if there is no sense of mystery. A vampire story will still be a vampire story if everything is known. For example in Salem’s Lot by Stephen King the reader knows that the traditional “rules” of vampire stories are in play. There is no mystery in that regard. And it is still a very, very satisfying story. At least in that way Salem’s Lot is a traditional horror story.
In contrast, Stephen King’s IT, moves away from a traditional horror story in some ways. The creature in IT, is not a named thing. It is not a monster that we know of and know the rules of how it operates such as one must kill it with sunlight or a wooden stake such as a vampire. We readers are eventually given some rules regarding the creature but I think the story operates as a good illustration of a story with the element of mystery you mention in your question. I think stories with that element of mystery still are under the umbrella of horror but are also interstitial and perhaps are closer to the weird fiction genre. I think a sense of mystery and lack of an explanation for the supernatural is a hallmark of weird fiction or at least is something more often seen in that category. While I enjoy stories with a sense of mystery and unexplained elements I don’t think it is a defining or an essential element to a horror story. Peter Straub stories often have that mystery and unexplained to them. Stephen King stories often have the rules and explanations to the supernatural. Both are horror. I don’t have a definitive answer but it is something I think about often.
Your story “A Thing in the Trees” uses that sense of mystery and the unexplained in a way that absolutely delights me.
JP: Following in the vein of my previous question, it seems like most of the horror in this story comes from the suggestion of something horrific, rather than what is actually shown or described, with just a few visceral details that are all the more powerful because of their scarcity. How did you decide what to make explicit and what to leave up to the reader’s imagination, and how do you think this affects the type of horror that the story embodies?
DB: Because I am relatively squeamish I’ve always shied away from the overt and graphic depictions. I also feel there is a great weight and power in leaving things suggested and to the imagination.
For a very long time I stayed away from reading stories by the great Jack Ketchum because I knew I would be uncomfortable with graphic depictions. Just as there is power in the suggestion I know there is great power in the opposite. Strangely enough, in this story I was trying to be as overt and graphic in my depictions as I dared. I think my own comfort level in what I’m comfortable writing worked out for the tone of the story.
I do think depictions do steer the kind of horror a story is categorized as. How much this matters to any given reader is a very different story. For me and my own style and preference less is more. I know there is a wide spectrum and I’ve learned that many readers enjoy both quiet horror and the splatter genre equally. My first collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales was intended as literary horror so when assembling it I had this notion in mind with story selection.
I’d like to think that I decide the level of depiction in any given story is what serves the story best but I have a feeling for me it comes down to my comfort level in spending time creating the story. I have been pushing myself on this front. I’m curious to learn if the stories where I did push are perceived as being closer to horror, than literary horror or weird fiction.
JP: I noticed that there is a degree of unreliability in the primary characters of this story. For instance, June keeps thinking she took the coat off when in fact she’s still wearing it, and at the end, Ivy “took it she imagined these things,” which leaves it somewhat open as to whether or not she merely dreamed the note from her mother. It seems to me that the only reliable thing in the story is the coat, which remains even when the people surrounding it die or disappear. The question of reliability of characters or narrators is a classic element of horror fiction, creating a sense of uncertainty over what is real. How and when do you decide whether a character is reliable, and how important was the question of reliability/unreliability to you when you were crafting this story?
DB: The notion of reliability was of paramount importance in crafting this story.
Is it June choosing to do these things consciously (or unconsciously)? Or is it the monkey coat with some supernatural power making her do these things? Once I landed on the idea that I wanted the tension between these two notions to be the primary thrust of the story all my decisions were made to serve that.
For me, the decision to decide if a character is reliable is linked to what my aims are for the story. I think about the decision and the approach very carefully before attempting to execute any level of unreliability. It is so easy to go astray or descend into un-intended confusion. My aim in “The Monkey Coat” was to deliver a story where the source of tension is between a supernatural or psychological explanation for the strange events and behaviors.
I chose to start and end with information and details showing that the coat does remain in peoples lives after their stories end and after they disappear from the reader. In that way the story becomes more about the object. It is the object that was the constant with Grandma Estelle, with June, and perhaps will be with Ivy.
When refining and deciding on my approach for the story one of the choices I had was to make this a story about a haunted coat. Part of me desperately want to put depictions of the violent, monkey ghosts of the monkeys who died to make the coat in the story. Ultimately I felt like that would have pushed the story too definitively in the realm of the supernatural. Even if they were presented as possible hallucinations. That element was potentially too loaded in either direction and thus I did not go with it. As close as I came was the line about June thinking she sees something in the trees. I felt a better aim of the story was to play with the tension between psychological and supernatural and to keep that unexplained with elements that could go either way all the way through the end.
It was hard for me to present a story where the characters aren’t as dynamic as I am used to presenting. June does want to change and perhaps she changes for the worse or perhaps her agency has been taken from her. Ivy is depicted as more of a dynamic character as she ultimately does change her circumstances. I think there is also a horror in whether characters are dynamic or not. Whether their endeavors to change are thwarted or realized. Ending on the scene where it is revealed that Ivy still does have possession of the coat I think may have pushed the story at least on a surface level back to something that appears to have a traditional shape- the structure of a haunted object story, as it begins and ends with the object being passed along in a way. There is a horror in the notion that June has possibly / likely failed in her desire to change. And a threat that Ivy’s change might be undermined by the coat in some way.
I think that you said it in an excellent way in your question, that unreliable characters can create an uncertainty over what is real. That uncertainty in this story is essential to the story depicted and possible outcomes for the characters.
Daniel Braum’s fiction has been classified as fantasy, science fiction, and horror but he prefers the good old fashioned term of just “fiction”, which when he was growing up simply meant a story were anything could happen. His stories frequently defy category and reside in the fuzzy areas between genres, utilizing and combining genre elements to produce tales that are wholly unique. He is the author of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, his first collection of short stories, published as an eBook by Cemetery Dance Publications and as a trade paperback by Grey Matter Press. A illustrated, limited edition book of his stories titled Yeti, Tiger, Dragon is due out in October 2016 from Dim Shores Press. He lives in Long Island, New York and often wishes he was at Brisbane’s Punjabi Palace eating chicken tikka masala after a Thursday night reading at Avid Reader.