I only became aware of Sam Gafford and his stories a few years back and immediately I knew I had to work with him. Since then his deep, rich tales have been classing up a number of my anthologies, so when I heard he had finished his first novel and was looking for a publisher, I knew I wanted to read it. Soon after I knew Dark Regions Press had to publish it. That novel, The House of Nodens, is available now through DRP and is a wonderful mix of horror, weird fiction, coming of age, and murder mystery. So when I was asked who I wanted to interview next, Sam jumped immediately to mind. The fact that he is a really good guy I could talk to for hours was just icing on the cake.
Brian M. Sammons – Before authors began to write they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep on reading?
Sam Gafford -- I was your typical kid reader in the 70s. Besides reading damn near every comic I could get my hands on, I eagerly consumed THE HARDY BOYS and the THREE INVESTIGATORS series. From there, I graduated to DOC SAVAGE, THE SHADOW and was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. At the time, there was a game show that was an updated version of the 64,000 QUESTION and, after seeing someone compete as a Sherlock Holmes expert, I wrote in asking to be a contestant with ‘comic books’ as my subject. Needless to say, I never heard back from them! About this time, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and was a big fan of his Mars books. Then, when I stumbled onto a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories in my high school library, all was lost! The die was cast and I’ve been writing pretty much ever since.
BMS – What, or whom, are you reading now?
SG -- I’m actually reading more non-fiction at the moment and a great deal of that has to do with a project I’m contemplating writing later on. In terms of fiction, I’m reading an excellent piece of fiction by Farah Rose Smith called THE ALMANAC OF DUST. I’m also re-reading a lot of Hodgson in anticipation of writing the first book-length biography/critical study of the man and his work. I recently read Dan Simmon’s THE TERROR because of the TV mini-series and, naturally, enjoyed the book much better. And there is rarely much time that goes by without my re-reading some Lovecraft or Harlan Ellison.
BMS – How old were you when you first started writing? What brought that on, and what kind of stories were they?
SG -- I was probably about ten years old when I started writing things. I was always writing little snippets of things which I rarely ever finished. About this time, my Father gave me his old portable, manual typewriter and, for some inexplicable reason, I began writing out stories that were in my favorite comic books. I specifically remember typing out page after page of a prose adaptation of some CAPTAIN AMERICA issues and even an issue of PREZ that had the main character being attacked by this strange legless version of Count Dracula. I think it was when I was about 16 or so that I actually started finishing stories I was writing and they were quite wretched of course. Thankfully, they have all disappeared into the mists of time.
BMS – Did you parents/siblings/spouse support your story telling? Did they get it? Or did they try to divert your attention to other things?
SG -- My parents didn’t support my writing beyond using it as a way to keep me quiet and out of their way. I only have two brothers who were 9 and 10 years older than me so they had no interest in anything that I did. As a kid, I would tell people that I was going to be a writer and, someday, would have a shelf of my books in the local bookstore. I’m still working on that goal.
BMS – When was your first sale and what market published it?
SG -- I believe that my first sale was a story called “The Horseman” to Eldritch Tales way back around 1980 or so. (I would have been 17 at the time.) They took a long time to print that though. I believe that my second sale actually preceded that one into print and that was “Deus Ex Machina” which appeared in the first issue of the fanzine, Haunts. Both stories were weird, naturally.
BMS – What is the best and worst thing about being a writer?
SG -- I think that the best thing about being a writer is the ability to create new and exciting worlds. There’s no better feeling then when a story comes together. I’d say it’s the writer’s equivalent of a “runner’s high”.
The worst thing about being a writer is the struggle to get your work known and read. Publishing has really changed in the last 10 years or so and there are now more writers and small presses in the field than ever before which is a good thing for readers but can be a rough thing for writers who aren’t known yet. And that’s not even mentioning the struggle of facing a blank screen or the often crippling self-doubt. In the end, a writer’s life comes down to you and what you can put on the page. That can be quite intimidating.
BMS – I know you primary as a “weird fiction” author, what drew you to doing that kind of tale? Do you mind being thought of or called a weird fiction writer?
SG -- I’ve always been attracted to the weird and unusual. As a kid, I was a big fan of horror movies and shows like KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER and TWILIGHT ZONE. My mind just naturally goes in such directions that I never even really think about it. I don’t mind being thought of as a ‘weird fiction writer’. That puts me in the company of writers like Poe and Lovecraft so who would complain about that?
BMS – That particular genre leaves a lot of people confused as to what exactly it is, how do you define it?
SG -- In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described his threshold test for obscenity as “I know it when I see it”. You could look at a book containing zombies or vampires and say that is clearly weird fiction and no one would debate it. But what about a novel like PSYCHO by Robert Bloch? It’s obvious weird fiction but not the same as DRACULA. To me, weird fiction is something that, at some point, deviates from what we accept as ‘normal’. In much of my own fiction (especially my short stories), it is like the world has ‘cracked’ in some way which has changed reality and made it dangerous and frightening. That’s as close to a definition of ‘weird fiction’ that I can get.
BMS – Is there a genre or type of tale you haven’t done yet but you really want to?
SG -- Actually, I’m a big fan of mysteries and noir. When I was reading Burroughs, I was also reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. I’ve always felt that noir is a close cousin to weird fiction and I’m actually writing a contemporary noir novel at the moment. I hope to finish it this year.
BMS – Any words of advice, or warnings, you would like to give to beginning authors?
SG -- It feels weird for me to be giving any kind of advice here as I’m hardly what one would call a successful writer. The best thing I can say is to write for yourself the kind of things you would like to read. That way, if no one else reads or notices it, you at least have that satisfaction of creating something that is uniquely yours. It’s not an easy career or one that I would recommend to those faint of heart. You do it because you are compelled to do so and because you can’t conceive of a life without writing.
BMS – Okay, let’s get to your first novel, published by Dark Regions Press, called The House of Nodens. It seems like a blending of a few different genres and an updating of some classic elements, first what can you tell us about the book?
SG -- For me, it’s an intensely personal book. It combines a lot of my literary influences into a narrative that, as I said above, is an example of that ‘fractured’ reality. It’s the story of a broken man who, during his youth, belonged to a group of kids that were not what he originally wanted them to be. The things they did have haunted him and now those events are coming back for revenge. Bill Simmons, the main character, has to determine if he is strong enough to atone for those deeds and rescue his soul.
BMS – What was the genesis for the idea that became the book?
SG -- As with many writers, I have certain themes that recur in my work or which resonate with me on a deep, personal level. One of these is the concept that you cannot escape your sins. Even decades later, they will come back to haunt you. From Lovecraft, I get a sense of cosmic horror that illustrates the essential insignificance of man. We are a species that suffers from a great sense of hubris that does not extend beyond this planet and we see this in Lovecraft. In addition to this, I have always been interested in the Joseph Campbell outlook on primitive cultures and their attempts to understand themselves and the universe around them. So I took this ‘Folk Horror’ aspect and put it all together into a sort of stew and THE HOUSE OF NODENS is what resulted.
BMS – Like many of the best horror novels it has a coming of age element in it, how much of that is drawn from your childhood? How close can you relate to these characters and which one, if any, is the most “you?”
SG -- Often, one of the most common piece of writing advice you will receive is “write what you know”. In many aspects, that’s what I did here. Much of the details comes from my early childhood. I lived in New Milford in the 1960s and went to the Middle School I described there. In one scene, Bill Simmons comes to the rescue of another kid who is being bullied and gets punched for his efforts. That actually happened to me and I used that event and the feelings that came from it to help define Bill. Not surprisingly, then, is the fact that Bill (as a child) is essentially myself. Later in the novel, a big clue comes from a piece of clothing that Bill wore and I had that same item as a child and it, like Bill’s, was a purchase by my Mother from the local thrift shop. So I poured a lot of my own loneliness and isolation as a child into Bill which makes this a very personal story for me. But, in a sense, there are elements of each one of the ‘Cemetery League’ that come from me and my childhood.
BMS – I would have no problem describing The House of Nodens as both weird and horror fiction and recommending it to fans of either/both, how do see it? How would you describe it if someone asked “what kind of book is it?”
SG -- I see it as a kind of ‘Folk Horror’ novel as it does revolve around Nodens and what it actually is and wants from the kids. In the end, though, it is a lot of things and I think that it might change depending upon the people reading it. Perhaps this is something that I would call “Doom Horror” in that there is a feeling of impending doom throughout the book.
BMS – Can you share any information on what you’re working on now?
SG -- As I mentioned, I’m currently working on a noir novel called THE HATE WE LEAVE BEHIND which is about two brothers. One is the typical ‘good’ son while the other is the ‘bad’ son who comes back home to help settle their father’s estate. It’s a character study, really, of the competition between the two and what happens when the ‘bad’ son discovers that his brother’s wife isn’t the ‘good girl’ she pretends to be.
After that, I have a couple of non-fiction projects that I’ll be working on. Then, my next novel will be THE FINDER OF LOST THINGS which takes place in the King in Yellow universe created by Robert Chambers as the titular character goes up against Chamber’s “Repairer of Reputations” in an all-out war.
BMS – What is the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
SG -- I have a website that will have updates on new works that are coming out. That’s probably the best way to keep up with my work outside of my own small press, Ulthar Press, which has a website and a FB page as well.
BMS – Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me today.
SG -- Thanks for having me!
Sam Gafford has been published in a wide variety of anthologies and publications. His fiction has appeared in such collections as Black Wings Volumes I, III and V, as well as Flesh Like Smoke FLESH LIKE SMOKE, The Lemon Herberts, Wicked Tales and in magazines like Weird Fiction Review, Dark Corridor, Nameless and others. A lifelong Lovecraftian, he has written critical articles that have appeared in Lovecraft Studies, Crypt of Cthulhu and more. An expert on the life and work of pioneering science fiction writer William Hope Hodgson, Gafford is currently working on a book length critical biography of Hodgson. Recently, he wrote Some Notes on a Non-Entity: The Life of H. P. Lovecraft which is a 120 page graphic novel biography of HPL with PS Publishing set to release it in 2017. Gafford has a collection of short horror fiction, The Dreamer in Fire and Other Tales coming from Hippocampus Press in 2016. He recently finished writing his first novel and hopes to have it published by 2017. A pop culture junkie, Gafford has probably watched far more TV than recommended. He lives in Rhode Island with his long-suffering wife and three ambivalent cats.