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Interview with Matthew G. Rees

M.M. MacLeod presents a Q&A with writer and editor, Matthew G. Rees.

Horla, the Home of Intelligent Horror, is an online magazine I discovered thanks to some of its contributors also being featured in Frost Zone Zine. The name, as stated on the website, comes from the story, ‘Le Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant. Founding editor, Matthew G. Rees is a former journalist, and teacher, who writes short fiction, as well as theatre drama. Upon reading some of Matthew’s work, I was delighted to find he writes about that space between the known and the unknown; ‘between what is and what might be.’* His writing is truly imaginative, dark, but also at times darkly amusing.

*from matthewgrees.com

M.M.: Matthew, welcome. So glad you could join us here at Frost Zone Zine. Let us begin by talking a bit about Horla. How and why did you come about starting Horla?

Matthew: Thanks so much for having me. It’s good to be with you. Horla launched in 2018. I was in the latter stages of a PhD in the field of short fiction at the University of Swansea, Wales. Setting up the website was simply something I felt like doing. A factor was the way my fiction was leaning at that time: a growing engagement with the supernatural and the liminal. I also liked the idea of writers in the same genre coming together via a platform for authors globally, some of whom might – for one reason or another – be having difficulty getting their voices heard.

M.M.: The online magazine is called Horla, The Home of Intelligent Horror – How would you define intelligent horror?

Matthew: The ‘tag’ came from a desire to help the site stand out, and to inform readers and writers of what I felt the site was about. Its spirit – pun intended – might be said to derive from Maupassant’s classic terror story of a haunting. The site isn’t a place for gore, exploitative or formulaic material. I think intelligent horror writing is writing that respects the intelligence of readers: we’re talking, I hope, about narrative that avoids the obvious and which, above all, brings something original to the page. On the whole, we’d prefer our contributors sidestep pools of blood, avoid hospitals – especially ‘old’ ones – for the criminally insane, keep out of creepy houses on corners, and leave lonely log cabins in woods well alone. Now and again, done well, these things are okay – but not on a regular basis. Similarly, if, a story gets to the stage of a knife being plunged into someone’s chest, then there’s a case for saying that it’s a piece that – in Horla horror terms – has failed or lost its way.

M.M.: Are there subgenres of horror fiction that you prefer, and some you are not particularly fond of? I am also interested in how you would describe ‘quiet horror’, which I believe could be applied to some pieces published in Horla.

Matthew: ‘Slasher’ doesn’t do it for me. I’m not sure I see the need: there’s sufficient awfulness in the world. Science fiction and Tolkienesque fantasy aren’t usually go-to choices of mine but, same as everyone (I hope), I can be won over by good writing. I’m slightly skeptical about contemporary authors attempting period fiction, by which I mean Edwardian and further back. In general, I like a story that illuminates, causes me to take stock and haunts me (but not in the sense of giving me nightmares).

Your term ‘quiet horror’ makes me think of the non-loud but effective story-writing of Walter de la Mare, whose chill factor comes from his creation of atmosphere and, at his best, a style that contrives to be both vivid and understated (even though some of his stories can be long by contemporary standards). I suppose ‘quiet horror’ is the opposite of the grotesque (though that’s something that can be entertaining in the right hands – Le Fanu, for one). Flannery O’Connor, with her Southern Gothic, wrote brilliantly at times. I think ‘quiet horror’ is generally of a piece with the uncanny and the unsettling: the sort of writing that can be found in ‘The Rook’ by L.A.G. Strong, and certain of Rudyard Kipling’s more challenging stories (‘Mrs Bathurst’ and ‘Mary Postgate’). Katherine Mansfield, John Cheever and Henry James (‘The Jolly Corner’) come to mind. ‘Quiet horror’ draws its strength not so much from what is said but from what the writer leaves unsaid.

M.M.: Moving on to your own writing now, do you recall when you first started writing fiction? Did you begin by writing horror fiction?

Matthew: I was mid-teens when others seemed to think there might be something ‘going on’ with the fiction I was writing. On a couple of occasions, teachers read out stories I had written for schoolwork – something I found a little uncomfortable. What I was writing was doubtless heavily influenced by what I was reading. I remember, particularly, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; also ‘The Destructors’ and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, and the poetry of Ted Hughes. Then came the classics. But the lasting influence – I believe – has been that of the likes of Golding and Greene, and to some extent Raymond Carver.

My adolescence in the Welsh Marches, on the edge of a small, cathedral city endowed with much history, was also influential. The fusion of these and other things perhaps set me on a course of writing stories leaning to the supernatural and the liminal (spheres with which the short story form has always been associated).

Perhaps the biggest influence remains my years on newspapers, with their inherent fondness for man-bites-dog eccentricity. Although I’ve been told my stories can be genuinely unsettling, I’ve never thought of myself as an out-and-out horror writer. Kipling’s ‘They’ is an example of a ghost story that isn’t horror. Arthur Machen, a famous son of the Welsh Marches, and Daphne du Maurier are others who weren’t merely conjurors of the macabre. They were inquisitive, I think. And I hope that that ethos shows in my own writing at times.

M.M.: How important is setting in your stories?

Matthew: It’s probably up there as one of the most important things. When reading other writers, I value the evocation of ‘place’. For a wonderful example in a short piece of writing (albeit not strictly a story) search out Laurie Lee’s ‘A Drink with a Witch’. It’s important in a story not to go overboard with reams of description: a short story needs to get on with the business of telling its story. But meaningful, sensorial things need to be brought (economically) into play. I hope this is the case with the stories in my collection Keyhole (Three Impostors press, 2019), set in Wales and its borderlands.

I’d pick out stories such as ‘Bluecoat’, which involves a derelict country house once used as a hospital for war-wounded servicemen. Also, ‘Rain’, which is about small children on a drought-stricken farm. Another would be ‘The Press’, which tells of an isolated young man whose dirt-poor holding is invaded by travellers led by a mysterious brother and sister. I want readers to feel they are there. As a writer of short fiction, you have to work at that, remembering that you’re writing a story (possibly meant to be read in one sitting), not a novel.

M.M.: Your writing, as said on your website, is often triggered by imagery. How much of the story takes shape in your mind before you start writing?

Matthew: Imagery is important to me, as I believe it is to many writers. In this context, I’m talking about imagery held in the mind. I call such mental pictures ‘insistent images’, for the way that they demand to be written about. Sometimes they’re a reproduction of something that seems to have clearly come from the past; other times their origins are vague, having taken up their lodgings unannounced, so to speak. There’s a term for this: ‘unbidden perception’. I find
myself agreeing with those writers – Flannery O’Connor, particularly – who’ve stressed the centrality of the unconscious in the writing process. When I started my story ‘The Press’, in Keyhole, I had a strong mental image of a boy riding bareback on a horse, with sunlight behind the youth and his mount. Other than a farmer spying him from a field, I had only the faintest notion of what might occur. Without plotting, the story fell into place. Mavis Gallant has written eloquently about how this can happen. Greene, Carver, Stephen King, William Trevor, and Vladimir Nabokov have – in different ways – touched on it.

M.M.: Your newest collection: Smoke House & Other Stories, is comprised of your short stories, and photographs you have taken while travelling. Related to the imagery question above, and your process, did the stories come to you as you travelled – or did they come later, when revisiting through the photographs?

Matthew: There’s a long history linking story-writing and photography. The short story really began to flower as a literary form at the time that photography was taking off. Victorian-era writers such as Conan Doyle were very interested in it. The stress that authors such as V.S. Pritchett have put on the short story as being akin to a glimpse has heightened this sense of connection. I’ve long enjoyed taking photographs, invariably with a cheap and simple pocket
camera.

My stories, however, are very much works of fiction. The images that interleave them in Smoke House and Keyhole are there because I find them interesting on their own account. I take photographs – often of somewhat curious things – for personal pleasure rather than as prompts for stories. It’s been said authors sometimes write best about a place when they’re away from it. A story comes to a writer when it wants to. It can’t be forced.

M.M.: Which is one of your favourite stories in Smoke House & Other Stories? Can you tell us a bit about the story behind the story?

Matthew: That’s a toughie. ‘Frayed’ is one that people seem, particularly, to like. It’s set in Wales – land of my fathers and mothers – where a failing London writer finds himself very much a fish out of water. In a mad way, the story addresses (wildly exaggerated) aspects of the modern ‘book world’. I find it hard to pick a personal favourite. The range of the stories somehow precludes it: spanning the ‘quiet horror’ – to use our earlier term – of my Russia-set story ‘The Glass’, to the weirdly explosive tale of a town’s Christmas lights in ‘A Shining Beacon’. Between, are the likes of ‘Thirteen’ (rooted in rural Wales) and the (I hope) unsettling case of a marsh-dwelling birdwatcher in ‘Hide’. Elsewhere, there are perhaps more mystical stories, such as ‘The Gate’ and ‘Under-Wall’. Thematically, all fourteen are about people and/or places that have separated from society’s mainstream.

M.M.: Do you have any writing rituals? A set time for writing; a routine?

Matthew: As already mentioned, a story, or part of a story, or the seeding of a play, will come when it wants to. Sometimes this can be at a very inconvenient moment: in those last stages of the day, for example, when I’m winding down for sleep. This can necessitate the sudden writing of notes. I prefer it when something comes to me on a walk somewhere quiet, alone: the riff of a few lines, that I’ll either write down on a scrap of paper, if I have one, or try to remember. At other times, as Nabokov has noted, it’s a question of a kind of epiphany, perhaps a physical shudder, and a search for a notepad. I think my brain is probably at its sharpest in the mornings. There’s no real ritual. Life can, and does, get in the way. Walking with my thoughts is important. Normally a beach, wood, or parkland, but urban wanders can also help.

M.M.: Is there anything new planned for Horla? What can we look forward to from your writing — do you have any new projects in the works?

Matthew: My hope is that I’ll be able to keep Horla going for another year. As anyone who’s run a site will know, it can be time-consuming. Essentially, it’s my unpaid hobby. The rewards have been getting to know people and their writing, a little, around the world. In terms of my own writing, I’m editing an intended collection of stories which I hope will be published in due course. Separate from that, I’m halfway through writing a themed collection of dark tales. I also have the outline of a play which – if written – will complete a thematic trilogy of plays connected with Wales. A short novel and an editing collaboration are also in the mix. That sounds a lot: I hope I can get everything done!

M.M.: Thank you so much for your time, Matthew. I look forward to reading whatever you have in store for us next, as well as the work of writers you publish in Horla.

Matthew G. Rees grew up in a Welsh family in the border country between Wales and England known as the Marches. He trained as a journalist and worked for ten years on newspapers in the UK. Later he entered teaching which included a period in Moscow. During a varied life, other diverse employment has included time as a night-shift cab driver. He is the author of the story collections Smoke House & Other Stories and Keyhole, the novelette Type, and the short story chapbooks The Word and The Tip. Two plays by him, Dragonfly and Sand Dancer, have been performed professionally. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea. More about him and his books and how to obtain them can be found at:
his website www.matthewgrees.com He is on Facebook
He edits the website Horla at www.horla.org

All photos/images ©, provided by Matthew G. Rees

MONTBRETIA

(the lucifer flower) a poem
M.M. MacLeod

Eyes so dark they penetrate
the minds of those who look
his way, his smile dazzles
all who witness

His sneer beneath
the façade

Befriends you all, and knows it all
he, the kindest friend
But what kind of man wears shiny skin
atop the

burnt and mottled
leather dermis

A furnace burns beneath his cool,
cool carriage
Not fooled, I pity she who
falls into such marriage

So convenient
to his masquerade

He roams the globe by flight and trek
he knows you.
He plants seeds of mild darkness,
the blooms so sweet 

Hidden are the thorns
and the horns

M.M. MacLeod writes horror, suspense fiction, and poetry in Hamilton, ON, Canada.

Interview with Ed Ahern

M.M. MacLeod presents a Q&A with writer and editor Ed Ahern.

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has had over three hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors.
Find Ed on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

M.M.: Welcome, Ed. Let us start off with a couple of questions that spring to mind from reading your bio. You mention a return to writing after four decades.
– Going back to those early years, did you aspire to be a writer then, and if so, what changed your course? 

E.A.: A high school English teacher thought I wasn’t illiterate and moved me into AP English courses, which in turn got me working part-time and slightly illegally for weekly newspapers doing exciting work like writing obits. On entering university I knew that if I wanted to both write and eat I needed to get a day job, and majored in print journalism.

– The career path you did take sounds intriguing. Can you tell us a bit about that? Do those experiences sometimes show up in your writing?

E.A.: I think most writers have a process of unconscious osmosis, where experiences and emotions seep out onto the page, often in forms we don’t recognize as memory. There was a very long detour absorbing life before I started writing creatively. I was in chronological order: student, Naval officer (specialties diving and bomb disarming), reporter(Providence Journal), intelligence agent (Germany and Japan) paper sales executive (eventually marketing director), retired for one day, paper sales executive, different company, retired again, now writing fiction, poetry, and the very occasional essay.

M.M.: You write horror stories, and sometimes retellings of fairy tales. Is there a connection? Do you think fairy tales were some of the earliest horror stories?

E.A.: To my enjoyment but probable detriment I’m a buffet writer—picking whatever writing theme looks tasty in the moment. I do fantasy, original fairy tales, retold fairy tales, occasional science fiction, literary and commercial stories, and lots of accessibly literate poetry. Oh, and horror. I think the scariest horror doesn’t use fantasy elements, but the shocking things we can do to one another all on our own.

M.M.: Do you prefer writing fiction or poetry? Is there an area of writing you haven’t yet explored but would like to?

E.A.: Kind of like asking if I prefer breakfast or dinner. Fiction for me involves putting characters into conflict. Poetry is sound and emotion, expressing a mood in words. I hope that by going back and forth I enrich both, the fiction gets more memorable language, the poetry stays accessible. My major goal over the past two years was to write a full-length thriller novel, just completed. I’m now whining and begging for an agent.

M.M.: Many people are required to be at home these days and perhaps have more time for writing. Working on the review board at Bewildering Stories, have you noticed an increase in submissions over the past year?

E.A.: Not really. Many of the writers I know, of both fiction and poetry, went into funks over a blend of politics and COVID. They’re slowly reemerging. I have noticed that the writing we get seems a bit better, so maybe all that time in solitary helped the writers.

M.M.: Many new literary publications have also started during the past year. Do you have a preference for online, digital, or print publications when it comes to submitting your own work?

E.A.: Including our own new start-up the Fairfield Scribes Micro Fiction journal- nothing longer than 100 words. In a fit of bad judgment, they made me lead editor. I’ve noticed that more and more short fiction and poetry is being read aloud on podcasts and blogs, and think this will take off in the near future. There’s something narcotic about hearing myself read a piece I wrote. I’m indifferent about the platform the words appear on and indifferently submit to them all. My criterium for submission are: speed of response, money, difficulty of placement, and prior experience with the editors. But I’m fickle. Despite having quicker acceptance from pubs that already know me, I’m often chasing down that tart in the corner of the bar.

M.M.: Having worked both sides of the desk, what is one tip you would give to writers, and one tip for editors?

E.A.: It’s a mirror image. For writers, remember that editors have literary preconditions and biases that may make your piece less appealing—not any less good, just not to their taste. And for editors, please, please, judge it on what it is and not what you think it should be.

M.M.: Do you have any new or upcoming publications or projects you would like to mention?

E.A.: The novel is titled The Will of the Wisp. Assuming it gets published I think it’s worth the read.

M.M.: Ed, thank you for your time and insightful answers.

The Scoop

(Much too long for the website, this is a preview of the story. The full version is available in print or eBook issues.)

M.M. MacLeod

Vyra tried to read what appeared on the screen — no easy task from her side of the translucent rectangle. She wondered how much information they had about her in their system.

“Remove your goggles,” the clerk said. Vyra complied as a thin metal tube detached itself from the side of the see-through computer screen. With a buzzing sound, the tube unfolded and precisely found Vyra’s left eye. A light on the end of the tube flashed.

“Identity confirmation complete,” a robotic voice announced from the computer as an image of her iris and pupil appeared on the screen.

The clerk typed for a couple of minutes, not speaking, her pasty complexion topped with a puff of pinkish-orange hair piled high on top of her head. The hue of that hair made Vrya think of shrimp-flavoured crackers, she’d once sampled years ago, that tasted like chemical-infused, salty Styrofoam. She felt queasy, but said, “I studied graphic design…before.” The clerk did not look up, as she continued typing.

“You are too old for the youth assistance program. You have no dependents. You are too young for elder aid. Do you have any addictions? Or are you capable of Regimental training?”

“I have back problems so I don’t think I could handle the training. No addictions unless drinking the cheapest brand of instant coffee counts,” Vyra laughed. “I mean, I must be addicted to drink that swill, right?”

Shrimp-puff-head simply stared at Vyra for a moment before saying, “Your file will be passed on to Department H. You will be contacted with a time slot.”

Vyra sighed. This was her third appointment with the agency. “Does ‘H’ stand for hell? Or just ‘hopeless case’? I need assistance now.”

“Please move along. Others are waiting.”

An armed guard stood watch outside of the cubicle, so Vyra left the building.

She placed the goggles over her eyes and walked the pristine streets to the station. Even the alleys were clean; no trash nor vagrants to be seen. Like her coffee, the goggles she wore were a bargain brand. They provided adequate protection from the blinding sun rays, but the cheap material irritated her skin. She preferred the dark of night.

Passengers held up their palms to the fare readers and entered the shiny subway cars. Not Vyra, she had enough balance left to pay for her room and buy some meagre grocery items. She walked to track number thirteen where the Free Train rested with open doors. She walked through the metal detector vestibule before one of the doors, found a seat that wasn’t completely filthy, and waited. Once the usual transportation option for those on the fringes, the line, which used older trains, now commonly had riders who could be considered average citizens. There were a few rough characters, but for the most part, the riders were a typical mix of urban dwellers.

The train emerged from the tunnel, chugging along the outdoor portion of the tracks, revealing a transformation of the urban landscape from bright and shiny to blight and grimy. There were workers collecting refuse and sandblasting buildings. She thought she spotted someone being pushed into a Regiment van, but she couldn’t quite see the event before the scene vanished from view. Farther and farther north. They keep forcing us tothe northern city limits while they clean up and create their lovely neighbourhoods.

There was no mistaking the figure walking down the length of the car, just as Vyra rose to go to the exit doors, waiting for her approaching stop. Kale’s appearance was the same as it had been in high school — tall and thin; straight and angles everywhere. Her head was shaved and she was dressed in raggedy clothing topped with an old leather jacket. She spotted Vyra, unfortunately.

“Heyyy, Rosa!” Kale said and joined her at the door.

“It’s Vyra.”

“Oh shit, yeah, Vyra, Vyra. You going home? You still live on Quarry Street?”

Kale’s face was even thinner than Vyra remembered, her goggles were pulled down, resting on her nose, beneath wild dark eyes.

“My parents are gone, I live on Chester.”

“Ahh, man. Yeah, my folks are gone, I think. I dunno they kicked me out when I was seventeen,” Kale laughed. “Hey, you got a place? Can I crash for a bit? I’m living in a tent over behind the factory.”

Hell, no. Think, think Vyra. “Sorry to hear that, Kale. But my landlady won’t let anybody else into my room. It is monitored day and night.”

The subway stopped and Vyra walked out through the door and vestibule, down the rickety staircase to John Street, with Kale tagging along.

“Yeah, it’s okay. Tonight I’m gonna try again to get scooped, anyway,” Kale said.

“Scooped?”

“For sure! Some folks get scooped and come out so clean and sober; so bright. They give them jobs. They give them great digs. Hell, I heard some even go up to the Shades.”

The Shades, Vyra knew, was the name of a community an hour north of the city. Enormous solar-resistant canopies were built over everything: houses, buildings, roads, parks. If you lived in The Shades, you could walk around without goggles, day or night.

“It sounds like what the government is doing downtown. Having soldiers clean up the streets, and the people, too. Is ‘scooped’ what you call it when the Regiment picks up an addict or a homeless person?”

Kale laughed and shook her head back and forth. “No! Well, maybe like that, yeah. But this is rogue, man. This ain’t the Regiment. But they have the same cure-stuff as the officials. They got that stuff that cures any kinda addiction.”

“Well, good luck. Almost makes me wish I was an addict,” Vyra laughed, then immediately regretted the quip. She was proud to be of sound mind and body despite the hardships she faced.

“You can fake it, man! You know Barton Prill?”

Vyra vaguely remembered the name, someone from their school she thought.

“I think he faked it – took some pills, but just enough to seem high and still know what he was doing. Met him a month later, told me all about it. First – they let him in this room with all the drugs he wanted, then when he was done they took him and cured him.”

“But if he wasn’t really addicted, what was there to cure?”

They were nearing the corner of Chester now, and would part ways when Vyra turned to walk up the block.

“Whatever, man. I know it works and Bart got a nice apartment over on Second Street. He works downtown in some Regiment office now.”

“Where is this so-called ‘scoop’, and do they pick up anyone? Addicts only, or anyone homeless, nut cases or what?” A job and nice apartment…

Kale poked Vyra in the shoulder. “You. You can be picked up. Just pretend to be an addict or something. I’m gonna try under the overpass tonight. They won’t go near the factory lot — I wish — but they check out the laneways some nights, and under the bridges other nights.”

Vyra started to turn up her street, but asked, “Kale, who are ‘they’?”

“Who cares? I only know they help out the Regiment, I guess. Like they’re getting started on this part of the city while the Reggies work their way up from downtown.”

“You’re sure everyone they take turns out okay – better?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Kale paused and gazed up at the sky for a moment. “But, uh…there were a couple of girls I heard got scooped and they never came back. Bet they went on to live up North or somewhere better.”

Vyra was not about to take Kale’s word for it; the girl had always been a live wire and who knows how reliable. Vyra swiped the screen on the wall of her room. The standard and dated computer came to life. She searched for any information she could find about ‘the scoop’. She had to dig deep.

M.M. MacLeod writes fiction and poetry in Hamilton, ON Canada.

…SEE complete version of “The Scoop” in Issue # 2 ; paperback or eBook