Author Curtis M. Lawson is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever come across. I had the distinct privilege to speak to Curtis about his short horror story anthology, Black Pantheons, as well as all things related to writing and – you guessed it – literary cosmicism.
(Get a copy of Black Pantheons by clicking here)
Black Pantheons deals with literary cosmicism. What draws you to this sub-niche genre?
I suppose the foundation of my interest in cosmicism and cosmic horror is in my own world view. I don’t believe in God, at least not in any traditional sense. After studying numerous religions, as well as hard science, it seems to me that all of reality is an accident of sorts – a cosmic anomaly. I find that idea both beautiful and terrifying.
It is liberating, to me at least, to think that there is no grand plan, no cosmic ruler, and that mankind’s destiny is in its own hands. At the same time I’ve always found the enormity of existence to be overwhelming. The realization that the whole of human history is but a grain of sand strewn about the ocean of time is humbling, to put it lightly. When you put that all together, you realize that the aforementioned sense of liberation comes at a terrible cost, like a man free from Alcatraz, left to the cold waters of the ocean.
Additionally, It fills with me with existential dread to think that we may be the most advanced manifestation of the living universe, and that there is a strong possibility we may die out on this gorgeous speck of earth before realizing a greater cosmic purpose of our own making. For real, that thought actually keeps me up at night from time to time. The idea that things greater than us, gods or aliens, might exist is even scarier to me. In my heart of hearts, I can not imagine them being benevolent.
Where does the title come from?
The main thing I wanted to do with this collection was to explore cosmic horror through the lenses of various mythologies, cultures, etc… I had done this a little with my first novel, The Devoured, but I wanted to expand even further. The title refers to the different groups of monsters, and dark gods within the stories. Some are Lovecraftian, others biblical, and still others eastern, but they are all Black Pantheons.
What was the main inspirational spark behind the anthology?
I had been attempting to write a new novel and I ended up scrapping it twenty thousand words in, so I wanted to do something different for a bit. I’ve always been a big fan of single author collections and I had a handful of short stories written with similar themes, so I sat down and wrote several more with the intention of putting together the collection.
Also, I was a Bram Stoker juror on the collection category last year, which gave me a lot of insight into what works and what doesn’t. Reading so many in such a short span of time gave me the confidence to go for it myself.
Do you agree that short story anthologies tend to suffer from the same stigma as poetry does?
It’s funny you ask that. I love short story collections. In a lot of cases, I prefer them to reading longer works. There are a lot of collections and anthologies out there with a lot of hype nowadays too, so I figured the category was hot. My wife, on the other hand, warned me that anthologies and collections don’t sell well, and I found her to be correct. Black Pantheons sold significantly less upon launch than either of my novels, or my last graphic novel. That as a real bummer, since I took a lot of pride in these stories.
So yes, I definitely think short story anthologies suffer the same stigma as poetry, but to a lesser degree.
Your characterization is spot-on. How do you develop your characters?
Characterization has always been my greatest strength as a writer, and I don’t have a solid answer as to why. The characters just kind of take on a life of their own in my head. If I had to chalk it up to something, I would have to say decades of playing D&D and other tabletop RPGs. I’ve been making up characters as a player and a game master since I was ten years old, and they just kind of populate in my mind now with little effort.
Another factor might be my life long love of comics. Say what you want about super hero comics, but they are extremely character driven. The characters have decades of breathing room to develop and some show a lot of growth over time.
Would you say that the literary cosmicism is also a meta-fictional sub-theme?
I never thought of it that way before, but I think that is an excellent observation. You can most definitely see that in Lovecraft’s work. He was an atheist and a materialist who used supernatural absurdities to shine a spotlight of nihilism on the world. I suppose my work would fall into the same category.
There are, of course, cosmic horror and mythos stories that I think fall outside of that. A lot of “Lovecraftian” fiction focuses more on the superficial tropes of the genre, than trying to present any philosophical argument. Certainly there is a place for light hearted, tentacle horror, but I do think that meta-fictional sub-theme really separates true cosmicism from the greater body of “Lovecraftian” horror.
How did you compose Black Pantheons?
A good chunk of the stories were already written and some had been published elsewhere. The three stories that stand out in my memory as being particularly interesting in their composition are Sinister Swan Song, Irretrievable Data Loss, and Paramnesia.
Sinister Swan Song was by far the most difficult story I ever wrote. Getting into the mind of the narrator, who is so comfortable with the extreme sadisms he inflicts, was mentally fatiguing. I really threw myself into the character, the way an actor might, and many times I stood up from a writing session feeling ill.
Irretrievable Data Loss was based off of a short comic I did with Michael Odom, that never saw publication. I always liked the story though, so I decided to rewrite it as prose. It takes a different mental toolbox to construct prose fiction than it does comics, so it was an interesting exercise adapting it from a visual medium.
As for Paramnesia, I had wanted to write a story that was, in essence, an 80’s slasher film. I thought it would be cool to turn the idea on its head though, and make the protagonists elderly, instead of teenagers. I feel like the elderly are often dismissed in the same manner as children, and their claims of supernatural stalkers would fall on deaf ears the same way. I ended up watching A Nightmare on Elm Street a few times in a row, dissecting each scene, and created a “slasher blueprint”. I used that as the frame which I built the story around.
What terrifies you?
Lots of things, really. I have a catalog of ridiculous existential fears that will never effect me on a personal level, like the end of humanity, the heat death of the universe, or even the extinction of my own direct bloodline. On a less crazy level, loss of self, loss of control, and lack of freedom are all terrifying concepts that tie into one another. I think that’s why possession horror is particularly scary to me.
There are also lots of abstract visual things that scare the hell out of me on a primal level, that I can’t really explain why. Animals or people that look subtly “off”, featureless masks, morbid religious imagery, gods with too many limbs.
Any tips for aspiring writers?
Three things. These are, to me, the most important lessons.
One – Write for yourself first and foremost, and write with honesty and integrity. Don’t go chasing hot markets, or trends. Never try to shoehorn something insincere into your story for the sake of selling it. If you sell a story that isn’t written from the heart, then you are misrepresenting yourself to the world, and damaging your brand and your integrity. Any legacy you have will be a fraud. And if you don’t sell the story, you are left with nothing but a compromised piece of work sitting on your hard drive. If it is honest and sincere, at least it will be there for you, even if it never sees the light of day.
Two – Stay hungry and stay humble. Publishing is competitive as hell, but it’s unhealthy and unrealistic to try and compete with other writers. We each come with our own unique voice and identity. You can no more compete with Johnny Createspace than you can Stephen King. Instead, compete against yourself. Have a story that no one will publish? Write a better story and show that older version of yourself how it’s done. Strive to be a stronger writer on every project. Hammer out your weak points. Read, learn, experience, and most importantly write all the damn time.
Three – Be kind. The literary world is fairly small, and we are all in it together. Network, make friends, and help out others when you can. Become a part of the community, and give more than you take.
When you do eventually find people that you conflict with, do your best to be cordial when you must, and simply avoid them when possible. If you are a gossipy trash talker, that will get around. Be professional and treat this like a job, if that is what you want it to be.