Steve Rasnic Tem Interview

Q: I want to ask you about motherhood and not knowing enough about mothers, which is quite valid, but one of the things I've noticed is that the wives and/or mothers are not usually present in the story. They are dead; they are somewhere else; they leave during the course of the story, usually under quite reasonable circumstances; they don't stay around and try to help their husbands. It is almost as though you are getting rid of the women in these stories, partially to focus on the child-father relationship but I'm not completely sure why they always go away.

A: I don't think it is for any malicious intent. The major reason is because that is not the relationship I want to talk about. Also you find it somewhat matches real life in the sense that these dramas get played out between a father and a daughter or a mother and a son or a father and a son without the other partner there. The other parent is there but the actual, key drama does not occur between three people. It is usually between two people. That's the way it happens in real life. Dramatically, that is the way to do it most interestingly. I think in part it is because I am writing a short story with these ideas. To put in the extra dimension of a mother and how she fits in takes it out of the short story category. When I do more novels, that is probably something I should consider doing. I found that I haven't really written any stories about mothers. I have written a lot of stories about daughters, though. The daughters are usually my most sympathetic characters. Probably a little more forceful than the sons are. That's the main reason I get the mother out of the way: she's just going to screw up the story. If she's going to be there, she's going to stop everything from happening and we won't have any story.

Q: So mothers are too sensible to be in your stories?

A: I guess I do see motherhood as basically a very sensible kind of institution. They probably don't belong in a horror story; they belong in an Amazonian heroic fantasy.

Q: I had seen mothers in your stories as being ineffectual. They always take off; they are never involved in anything going on.

A: They are ineffectual in the sense that they are absent. I try not to write stories in which there are women who are in the story who are being ineffectual by being in the story. I may have done that a few times but I try to avoid that. I mostly try to get rid of them so that you can come up with your own conclusion as to why they are not there. Maybe they can't be there. Usually, I think I kill them off.

Q: For the most part, they are dead or they leave because they can't take it anymore.

A: Well, that seems like a reasonable attitude actually. Still they are acting reasonably; they are not acting ineffectually.

Q: In "Little Cruelties" I remember being struck particularly by one incident in which the husband goes off and buys this old house. Of course all the attendant horrible things happen stemming from this. But he appears to have bought the house without anyone else in the family, including his wife, seeing it until the day they moved in. I thought that was very odd.

A: Of course that is one of the little cruelties that he commits. Although maybe that's more of a medium or major cruelty than a little one. That character in "Little Cruelties" is an example of someone who does not really see what he is doing. At the end I think you have an idea that he realizes what he has done, but he really can't see it. I guess if I am guilty of anything in my stories, it is that men come off as pretty lousy people. Not always. Sometimes they are well-meaning. I care about them. I care about all the characters. But most of my male characters have something wrong with them. That is one of the reasons why these horrible things happen: there is something terribly wrong with them. To go out on a limb, I would say that I don't know that that is that far from the truth about the culture at large. As opposed to any individual male, there are many things wrong with the cultural male. I hope that my stories show some of the things that are wrong with that figure even when that figure is trying to be sensitive. It is almost an insult, I think, when some of these men are trying to be sensitive because they--gosh, poor guys, you feel sorry for them--have been raised in such a way that most of these attempts to be sensitive are doomed to failure or at least only a partial success. To me, that's not that unrealistic as to most men I know.

Q: Going back to something that you have touched upon before, the father frequently questions whether or not he loves his family, whether or not they love him, does he really know what love is? In various stories, characters ask themselves these same questions. Also expressing affection is a major question for many of the characters. There seems to be a great deal of ambivalence about love and whether or not there is anything called love. Whether it is real or whether it is just a program he is following?

A: That's true. Again, that is something I see in most people I run across, whether they state it that clearly or not. There is this question about how do you tell if it is real love or if you are just fooling yourself or if this is an expression of need. I suppose in some ways I am a romantic in that I believe in unconditional love. I find immediately that when I talk to my friends about that, people have a hard time swallowing it. People are really ambivalent about all that.

Again, to me, horror stories are most effective when they are about the real horrors. To me, the real horrors are not vampires and werewolves and so on, although those guys can be fun. The biggest horror, maybe, is what if she dies, what if my kid dies, what if something horrible happens to them? For someone with a family, that's the big horror. Another horror is what if I wake up tomorrow and this person I am sleeping next to, I don't recognize them, I don't understand anything about them. I don't understand what they are doing. I suppose that's where the zombie or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD kind of thing comes from. I think many people have this fear that they think they understand this person pretty well but what if one day he does this one thing and suddenly it all falls apart? I suddenly know that I don't understand them at all. A lot of people are just waiting for that to happen. They just wait for the person to do that one thing that shows all their assumptions are wrong. She or he is not the person I thought she was. I think there has been one anthology about this but someone should do another one. Love, although it is the greatest positive thing in human life, can also be the greatest horror. It is the one horror that almost anyone can face. Anyone is vulnerable to that horror.

Did I worm my way around that one enough?

Q: Another theme present in much of your work is the inescapability of the past. Whatever you have done, or in some cases, whatever preceding generations have done, will come back and get you, one way or another. There is a quote from EXCAVATIONS which has a lot to do with this and your work: "Rage remained forever in a place which had once nurtured it." Obviously, as in EXCAVATIONS, it can be a physical place but it is also the human heart in a number of your stories.

A: I believe that very strongly. It is not as if it is going to come around and get you inevitably. It's going to come around and get you if you don't watch out. Lots of horror fiction is a warning: pay attention to the stuff in the shadows because if you don't pay attention, it's going to get you. I've said before that the one kind of person I don't trust at all is the person who can't recognize his own capacity for darkness or bad things. I don't trust those people at all because they can hurt you. The really healthy person is the person who can see his capacity for darkness and also can face up to the things that he has done in the past and own the past. I'm convinced that it doesn't go away.

If there is a central motif in horror fiction, it is the ghost story, the haunted house. All the haunted house or haunted place is is about the way memory persists. It is always there and we can't get rid of it. It is almost as if it has its own existence. One feeling I have occasionally is that no matter how successful or happy or fulfilled I feel as an adult, that kid I was--even all eight or nine or ten of them, depending on the stages--they are all back there. They are all following me around and they are stuck there. They always will be. There is nothing I can do to save them. It is almost as if they are other people. That is what the past is like. That is what memory is like. Those things don't go away. The best you can do is to embrace them and say that they are okay.

Some people have accused me of being a little perverse about this. One of the reasons that horror fiction is a very optimistic fiction and a very positive kind of fiction is that it says go ahead and embrace this darkness. Go ahead and embrace all this pain. It's okay. Sure all these awful things happened to you as a child but at least they were interesting. The very fact that they were a piece of living, that they were strong enough that you remember them--they were pretty horrible so you remember them--that is a positive thing. You probably know more from that, you've lived more from having this horrible thing happen to you, in a sense. So what I'm saying is embrace all that. It makes you a fuller person. Somehow all this darkness gets translated into something that is positive and light.

Q: One of the ways, very specifically and very physically, that the past is repeated is child abuse, in reality and your work. It is carried on from generation to generation until somehow that chain is broken. Why is it so important to your work? Have you had any personal involvement with it?

A: No, I don't have any personal involvement with abusing kids. I want to get that straight.

Q: You know that's not what I meant.

A: Just to get it clear. In trying to address this question as directly as possible, there are many reasons. One reason goes back to what I said about the source of werewolves and vampires. When I say that your parents act in these bizarre, violent ways, I'm talking essentially about child abuse. Again, it has become somewhat of a cliche but I think child abuse is the big hidden crime for perhaps all of Western culture. It has always been much more prevalent than anyone has ever admitted. It is still more prevalent, even as paranoid about it as we are now, than we imagine it.

Q: You said Western culture. Do you not think it is a human problem instead of cultural?

A: I can't say with any kind of certainty but my reading suggests to me that it is more Western than it is Eastern. There have been periods in the Orient, certainly, when there has been a large strain of child abuse or child neglect. But I am not convinced that it has been as extensive or as pervasive as it has been in most Western cultures. Of course, some cultures have always been appalled by the way white, Western man treats his or her children.

That's one reason I'm obsessed with the theme. It is another one of those great horrors that I don't feel is written about adequately in fiction often. The other reason having to do with the fact that, to me, horror fiction is really fiction about children or about the child in you. Again, child abuse becomes prevalent. I'm also an adoptive father. Any time you adopt a child over two years old, that child most likely has been abused. That's a sad statistic but that seems to be true.

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