Landlocked Nomads, Leaky Realities, and High Strangeness
An Interview with Gary Mawyer by Pat Matsueda
Gary Dale Mawyer is the author of four novels, a biographical history, and a short-story collection. A native of Central Virginia, he traces his forebears to before the American Revolution and draws on a wealth of family lore in his writing. He received his MFA from the University of Virginia and has extensive personal interests, including American history, Virginia history, military history, geology, and travel. His books include Rockfish, a multi-generational novel that concludes in the weeks after 9/11, and Dark and Other Stories, the collection that is the focus of this interview. In portraying humankind as unlikely to understand the full reality of everything around us, Dark raises fascinating questions about perception and awareness. [author photo by Mike Reilly]
VV The stories in Dark seem to be from the same region. Can you tell us, briefly, about the history and geography of this region?
GM The stories in Dark come from Central Virginia and the neighboring Monongahela region of West Virginia. This is a mountainous ridge-and-valley geography including the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah Mountain, and other ranges to the west. The city in this semi-fictional area is Charlottesville, in Albemarle County. This is an agricultural, or at least not very industrial region with a surprising amount of State Forest, National Park and federal Wilderness Area. It’s a very rural area dominated by wasteland as Tolkien used the word, with a very rural native population. The chief distinction is between locals and non-locals, and the distinction is dramatically deeper than either party realizes. University and professional people who have moved here, and the large numbers of people who have retired here or invested here, have limited interaction with locals and the reverse is also true.
As to history, the stories in Dark qualify for the “historical fiction” genre. They were all composed in the late 1980s and set in the early 1980s. I believe this time stamp shows somewhere or another in every story. Circa 1980 or so, the landscape described in the stories was significantly more rural than it is in 2018 and had many fewer non-locals, but it’s a matter of degree.
I overhauled all of the stories in Dark in the process of prepping them for publication. But I do not dislike the 30-something version of myself who wrote these stories. His judgment was very different from mine as it is today, but not inevitably worse. I cleaned things up a little but, with the exception of the title story about the Alhambra Theater, I did not rewrite them, though they aren’t in the diction I use now.
VV You’ve told me parts of these stories, so I recognize some passages as accounts of your own experiences. What would you say is the proportion of fact to fiction?
GM The proportion of fact to fiction varies from story to story. “The Stony Point Poltergeist” is nonfiction with only the family name changed. “Hanging Valley Breakdown” is mostly true in its details, but the elements of what really happened have been choreographed to make a story. Many passages are literal but the story as a whole is fiction. Nonetheless, it is interesting (and not surprising) that the question of a relationship between the radio signals from Einhoven and the constellation Bootes still interests a few people, and speculation still goes on about it even now, thirty-eight years after “Hanging Valley Breakdown” was written.
“Dark,” the title story, went through many drafts in the 1980s and then several more drafts later. The full account, I am sure, is impossible. All earlier versions of the story were much too long and unreadably detailed. To get the theater story into the shape in which it appears now, I had to reduce the number of characters by a third and represent the others as mere thumbnails of themselves. But it’s fair to say every character in the Alhambra tale represents a real person who could probably sue me for sarcasm, and the things described happened to me or were told to me by people I believed. To make it a “tale,” a literary ghost story, I had to condense and re-condense. I don’t consider this story a success. But I’m not going to keep knocking my head against it now. The story has been turned into fiction, in an attempt to catch the flavor of a certain place.
“Remote” is also fiction, but it’s a possible fiction. It’s about 20% experience and the rest invention. “Remote,” I might add, is also a spinoff story from a novel started around the same time, which is still in progress or in the fourth set of revisions. The novel draft has been set aside many times over the years but may be finished someday. “Off the Map” is a Lovecraft homage with nothing specifically true in it. In those days I went camping a lot. The terrain described in “Off the Map” exists under other names, but the true things aren’t in the story. It’s a pure fiction.
VV Here is part of a message you sent me in April 2009 (yes, almost nine years ago):
The parking area had a dead dog lying on the ground frozen as solid as an ice cube, and in front of the dead dog there was a huge plate of frozen brunswick stew, which by itself was a little curious. The blowdowns were in an otherwise open meadow, which is also curious, and the trees were mostly very ancient ones with some serious size on them, which was also curious. The meadow and its blowdowns were also heavily littered with what looked like whole sheets of loose newspaper or paper tablecloths blowing around, a detail that somehow fogged up on me even when we were there among it, in that mentally stumered “this does not compute” way characteristic of Robbie the Robot and Republican congressmen from Virginia. There was just so much apparent paper and in the dead of winter and back in the woods it lacked explanation. In fact, topologically speaking, it was odd that there would be such a lot of scattered giant litter and yet none on the trail or by the trail or even actually close enough to identify, and the fact that it was blowing around a little bit bothered me somewhat because the air was not moving at all–it was dead still. We were across the creek and up on the neighboring ridge when I finally realized that it still did not compute and was not going to compute, and that we had walked right past something we weren’t meant to see at all, and had somehow not quite glimpsed it.
Coming across something you weren’t meant to see is an accidental encounter. I got the sense, though, in most of the Dark stories that the characters were meant to have the experiences they did. This is one of the paradoxes that you explore: how an accidental encounter is part of some larger mystery in which the encounter is meant to happen. Am I right about this?
GM That is a complex question. I would say the Pocahontas County winter camping anecdote you quoted is a perfectly good example of “the kind of thing that happens” but the chance of an explanation for such things seems distant. We have no context for it.
That anecdote never got used in a story, but it could have been. One of the purposes of storytelling is to make a context where there was none and thereby force errant realities into meaningfulness. It is a way of living with them. The dead hound story could be dropped into Dark and Other Stories and would contextualize quite naturally. But as a mere event on the side of a remote highway, all there is to add is that the dog was a tawny yellow, the mound or pyramid of Brunswick stew was on a paper plate, and that it was even colder than the anecdote suggests. It was bitter cold, probably in the low teens Fahrenheit.
My friend George, a veteran of a lifetime of journalism, once told me that when he encounters an event that just doesn’t correspond to reality, a “goofy” event, he turns around and walks away. It’s good advice. If you find that you have somehow strolled into an unpublished Tarot card, do not linger out of curiosity. You will learn nothing. You do not belong and should go quietly away.
Which gets us to your question—are apparently accidental encounters really part of a larger coherent reality in which the encounters secretly make sense? The answer in terms of the stories is yes; the stories are certainly framed that way. I don’t know if that applies to life and reality or not. I am of two opinions about that.
VV I recently came across two definitions of fear:
A single crow is mystery, a flock of crows is fear.—Sun Wenbo (Chinese poet)
Fear is extreme ignorance at an intense moment.—João Guimarães Rosa (Brazilian fiction writer)
Would you say these definitions are applicable to Dark and Other Stories? That is, are these the kinds of fear you are writing about?
GM I like both of these definitions. But what really scares me is the normal daily world. The idea that reality is a bit leaky and that otherwhere and otherwhen can show through is less disturbing and more reasonable than the horrors and sins on the front page of the newspaper. We don’t know very much and we’re mostly conditioned to leave it that way. We provide the fear.
Nonetheless, like everyone else I know, I have had the wits scared out of me a few times and not known what was causing it, in a way that would meet Rosa’s definition. And when surrounding mysteries multiply like a flock of crows, as in Dark, the cumulative effect can eventually become a sort of retrospective fear.
There are other kinds of frank terror, for instance a sheer Lovecraftian panic. That can be enjoyable to read about, next to a warm fire with hot cocoa, but maybe only because the kind of gulf or void implied in that species of fear can’t really be described. If it could be conveyed in words, the fun might go away. As I suggested earlier, maybe one purpose of supernatural stories is to make a homely and conventional context for something that isn’t otherwise emotionally safe. As Barnardo and Marcellus tell Horatio at the beginning of Hamlet, “It would be spoke to. Question it, Horatio.”
VV In “Hanging Valley Breakdown,” there are economic, societal, communication, psychological breakdowns. The main characters are all males who need distance in order to exist and yet it’s this distance that contributes to their painful disintegration. Would you say this kind of isolation—or need for it—is characteristic of the region you’re writing about?
GM No, that isn’t a regional characteristic. It is specific to the characters. There are many troubled people in the world who lend themselves to stories. These are some of them.
“Hanging Valley Breakdown” is a comedy. It would not still be funny if the disintegrating divorced or separated loners in the story came to bad ends. Well, I guess Gruber dies, but he was going to die anyway, and it may have been a mercy. Sam, Pat and Gruber, the “three little pigs” of the Wolf County story, are considerably broken but there is no fixing them. Their adventures do not change their trajectories. This is who they really are. The comic side effect is that it puts them in the situation where the wall between reality and the other reality is the thinnest: solitude.
Fear is double-sided. For instance isolation and fear are often associated—isolation mental, moral, physical, emotional. The greatest word of comfort is, “You are not alone.” But that’s very situational. In the solitude of the old house, the old projection booth, the old haunted jungle, “You are not alone” is terrible news.
The world’s good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, include many tales of how everything came out all right—all of Jane Austen for instance, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. People still read Caesar’s Gallic Wars two millennia later, sometimes in the original.
However, stories where everything goes all to hell preponderate. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, all of Waugh, certainly every tragedy. Many comedies, despite their happy endings, are tales of ridiculous failure and absurd losses. Mark Twain wrote in both of these veins. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came out all right, but The Mysterious Stranger is the most terrifying thing I ever read.
VV The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas describes fear in his great textbook, the Summa Theologiae: fear is a “passion of the soul” characterized by a bodily “contraction” that occurs whenever one “regards a future evil which surpasses the power of him that fears, so that it is irresistible.”
GM For quotes about fear from Doctors of the Church, it’s hard not to greatly admire St. Jerome’s quote. Jerome himself quoted from Virgil: “Horror was all; silence itself was terror.” Which is Aeneas speaking of his descent into hell. Jerome used the quote in reference to the catacombs, in a way that reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe—it is a wonderful effect.
To quote St. Jerome’s Wikipedia page:
As a student in Rome, he engaged in the superficial escapades and homosexual behaviour of students there, which he indulged in quite casually but for which he suffered terrible bouts of guilt afterwards. To appease his conscience, he would visit on Sundays the sepulchres of the martyrs and the Apostles in the catacombs. This experience would remind him of the terrors of hell:
“Often I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead, where everything was so dark that almost it seemed as though the Psalmist’s words were fulfilled, Let them go down quick into Hell. Here and there the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Vergil, “Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent.'”
VV Why is The Mysterious Stranger so terrifying, and did you mean for Dark to be terrifying?
GM The Mysterious Stranger is a masterpiece of down-the-primrose-path narrative. The opening chapter is no more dire, maybe less dire than the beginning of Pudd’nhead Wilson, which on page 1 introduces an “invisible dog.” But the invisible dog in the somewhat rambling and gloomy opening of Pudd’nhead is rapidly followed by a perfect one-liner and we know at once that we are in a tale about dimwitted rural fools, spun by a perfected raconteur. It is safe to start smiling. In The Mysterious Stranger, however, after being told that the village of Eseldorf was “infinitely content” and “a paradise for us boys,” and having been assured by Father Peter that God is all goodness and evil scarcely exists, things begin to go bad in an inexorable cascade, each flaw morphing into a worse thing until calamity is absolute. Father Adolph and the Astrologer establish a quick web of lies and malice. The Stranger who appears in chapter 2 is a profoundly ambiguous figure, marvelous and hopeful; is this going to be It’s a Wonderful Life? No. The only real power in the story is completely indifferent. The village of Eseldorf becomes a scene from Hell. When at the end evil has triumphed and the good are destroyed, the children ask the Stranger, “How can such things be?” And they are told, “There is no being.”
The Mysterious Stranger is the most perfect nihilist story I’ve yet encountered. I remember reading it in one go at night. I was eleven; it was too hot and humid to sleep, and countless huge night beetles were banging against the black window screen. I felt the bottom of the world drop out when I finished it. I have always loved Twain.
You also asked if “Dark,” the Alhambra Theater story, was meant to be scary. That was not my goal. The story is meant to convey an experience a little bit like St. Jerome in the catacombs, who has sought this horror out and rather enjoys it, but uneasily and with much misgiving.
VV Say more about “Banjo,” which, in my opinion, is the most lyrical of the stories. The curtain between reality and otherworld gets thinner and thinner until it disappears. But are we to believe there is a clear boundary between the two at the beginning?
GM There’s no clear boundary between worlds in “Banjo” or in any of the stories in Dark. This world extends into other bordering worlds, maybe in all directions, as if we were landlocked nomads who had only heard of a distant sea.
I included “Banjo” in Dark and Other Stories with trepidation. It’s a student story. As best I remember, it isn’t even a graduate-student story. I think it was an undergraduate story. I can’t help looking behind the story in “Banjo” at the social assumptions of its author, a very younger self.
VV Why do you think we seek, in our entertainment as well as our religion, experiences of terror and evidence of miracles?
GM That’s a complicated question. I have conflicting reactions. Are we seeking terror and miracles, or are we seeking reassurance and consolation? As I suggested earlier, maybe the function of the weird tale is to draw a homely and conventional context for something that isn’t otherwise emotionally safe. The canons of storytelling assure us that what we really do is temporarily suspend disbelief. Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out that weird tales are closely related to detective stories—they both rationalize safe contexts for chaotic events, and thus “solve” them, making us feel emotionally safer.
We easily disbelieve other people’s stories, and ought to be just as suspicious of our own stories. Our social experience and self-experience is questioning, doubt, re-thinking, analysis, decision. Or maybe just snap judgment and prejudice. But there are traditional vehicles of high strangeness: tales of the weird and miraculous, inviting us to lay down our burden of rationality for a time. Even so, weird tales are not evidence of miracles, just as there weren’t really any Agatha Christie–related murders.
But these answers are inadequate. Encounters with the uncanny and inexplicable are a universally reported human experience, apart from stories. There is an entire veridical literature alongside the overt fiction. Human reactions to encounters with high strangeness—a term introduced in the 1970s to describe UFO incidents but with a much broader application—vary tremendously. An answer that doesn’t take that shoal of witness and reportage into account is not a very good explanation.