An interview with Sean Moreland by Derek Newman-Stille
Sean Moreland and I have been engaging in a discussion about horror for years, both academically and as fans of the genre and I am pleased that I have been able to share some of that conversation here with Speculating Canada’s readers. I am a fan of Dr. Moreland’s scholarship as well as his editorial work that has highlighted horror texts that may not otherwise have been published. He and others working with Postscripts to Darkness have been able to highlight literary horror and weird fiction and focus on good, powerful works while resisting some of the pressures of the publishing industry to conform to expectations of the genre that have been shaped by the past and by audience expectations from past works of horror. Their genre-bending work has engaged my attention, and Sean Moreland’s own willingness to break barriers between the role of author, editor, and academic have been an inspiration. I hope that you enjoy this conversation between us as much as I have.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Sean Moreland: I’m a sometime-writer of short fiction and poetry, much of it in a grotesque or fantastic vein, a University English professor who teaches sessionally at the University of Ottawa, and a scholar whose major research interests include horror and weird fiction and film. I’m also the founder and a fiction editor of Postscripts to Darkness, a twice-yearly serial anthology of strange fiction and art.
Spec Can: You teach horror courses at Ottawa University, what first got you interested in horror? What were some of the first horror books you read and horror movies you watched?
Sean Moreland: I’ve had a fascination with horror and weird fiction since I was a small child. When I was five years old, my parents bought me the Piccolo Explorer book of Demons and Demonology (a book whose vivid illustrations still feverishly populate my brain) and shortly after that my maternal grandmother, a one-time schoolteacher who was also instrumental in teaching me to read at about three years of age, bought me a collection of abridged, illustrated literary classics for kids, which is where I first discovered some of Poe’s tales, as well as H.G. Wells War of the Worlds and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That seemed to seal the fate of my literary tastes.
It was the literature that first stirred my love of the weird and horrific, but films followed close behind. I was staying up late on weekends to watch horror classics on late-night TV shortly later. My father was apparently convinced at one point that if he agreed to stay up with me and watch, I’d fall asleep before him and he could tuck me in and switch on a late-night sports show or something, and the glamour of being able to stay up late would be eliminated for me. This never worked. I’d be bright-eyed and absorbing a Universal classic or a Godzilla film or something, and he’d be snoring away soundly on the couch by ten.
My tastes were forcefully accelerated by my cousin Tanya, a year my junior, who was, I suppose, my first “horror-buddy.” I remember her regaling me with plot summaries of horror movies she’d watched, and having nightmares about, for example, Friday the 13thand A Nightmare on Elm Street before ever seeing them. I lived in mortal terror of the family dog, a beagle named Candy, for a couple of months after Tanya described the plot of Cujo to me in gruesome detail.
Ironically, when Tanya’s taunts of “chicken” helped me overcome my initial trepidation, I quickly found the films themselves much less frightening than my own imaginings of them, and a life-long horror film habit was off to a sprinting start. It’s always struck me as interesting that childhood gender dynamics featured in my early introduction to horror films, as I was conscious that if Tanya, who was both a girl and nearly a year younger (and bear in mind I grew up in a small-town Ontario context where male child-socialization revolved heavily around sports and such, and where phrases like “you throw like a girl,” or “don’t be a sissy” were in chronic superabundance on the schoolyard) could watch these taboo “grown-up” movies and take them in stride, I should be able to, as well.
Spec Can: What do you enjoy most about teaching horror?
Sean Moreland: Being passionate and enthusiastic about your subject always makes teaching less of a job and more of a pleasure, and that is readily conveyed to the students, I think.
Spec Can: What are some of your favourite moments when teaching horror?
Sean Moreland: Many of the students who already have an interest in, or even a passion for, the genre, but who have never had the opportunity to really engage critically with the pleasures and challenges it offers really rise to the occasion to talk and write about it in the classroom, so that’s always a pleasure. I really enjoy discussing the personal and social dimensions of our reception of horror texts – inviting the students to share their own reception of these texts always generates great in-class discussion, and I’m very curious about both the continuities and differences in terms of how horror texts are differently socialized over the decades. Relatedly, I also love talking about the idiomatic vocabulary that we tend to use in describing our reactions to horror texts (“scary as fuck,” “scared the shit out of me,” and so on) and what it tells us about the embodied nature of our response and the feelings that horror texts evoke, which leads into a wide variety of sociological, psychological and philosophical discussions.
Spec Can: What can students learn by engaging with horror? What can horror do to broaden their horizons?
Sean Moreland: What can’t horror do, if considered closely? Whether we’re approaching it from a broadly generic viewpoint, or from a psychological response perspective, or looking at how cultural anxieties are shaped and manipulated by horror texts, for centuries horror fictions have been intricately interwoven with our individual and cultural development, and have been actively attempting to tap into our innermost fears and desires. Horror, broadly understood, can be a powerful lens focused on nearly every aspect of our lives.
Sean Moreland: By its affective nature, horror tends to be closely tied to anxieties about the body, so it has always had a great deal to offer in terms of approaches to studying perceptions of the body and their relation to identity. Horror is, in a way, the proving ground for any conceivable form of alienation from the body, any conceivable kind of dysmorphia. But horror texts also tend to aggressively interrogate the body as a locus of desire, which is one reason there has been so much Freudian and Lacanian ink spilled in discussing horror texts, not to mention how generative horror texts have proven to be for Foucauldian and Deleuzian studies.
Spec Can: In addition to teaching horror, you also write horror fiction. What are some of the things that you hope your horror fiction will do for your audience?
Sean Moreland: Publishing fiction is a new thing for me – I come to it late in life. I’ve published a few stories lately, and hope to gradually publish more, but I don’t have any kind of systematic goal with my fiction, really – each story is very much its own thing. I am an informal apprentice of the writers I read and admire, and an occasional experimenter with ideas and techniques I largely pillage from writers I study and teach.
For example, “The Rosy Boa,” which I was pleased to learn you found to be an effective piece, is basically a re-writing of a classic camp-fire jump-scare story I remember from my childhood, “The Fur Collar,” through the lens of a Poesque unreliable narrative structure and a semi-autobiographical preoccupation with gender dysphoria.
The version I was familiar with came from J. B. Stamper’s book of scary stories for kids, Tales for the Midnight Hour, which I read innumerable times when I was five or six, and which I’ve just bought a copy of for my stepdaughter. My version is a very different kind of “camp” fire story (and one I won’t be reading to her any time soon!)
I can say that each story slowly evolves towards its own practically inarticulable end, an end which I usually think I’ve arrived at prematurely, and then months later, and often after the story has been incised by the keen eyes of the writing workshop I participate in with some story-minded friends, I realize it has further yet to go.
I also have a powerful, unrealistic, irrational, and likely pretentious hatred for the market-end of writing fiction, and generally have little interest in tailoring the things that I write for particular markets, or audiences. Largely for this reason, I’ve never hoped, planned, or tried to make a living as a professional writer, and am often puzzled and amazed by those who have tried, and infinitely more so, those who succeed in doing so.
I write fiction, like poetry, occasionally, shoehorning it in between teaching, working on academic writing projects, and being a family-guy. Of course, like every other wanker out there with literary aspirations, I also often muse aloud about putting more time aside to focus on fiction (this summer, Derek, this summer I swear!) but life devours time nearly as fast as time devours life.
I’m heartened, and intimidated, by the fact that one of my favourite living writers, the incomparable Glen Hirshberg, somehow manages to balance life as a devoted father, full-time high-school teacher, community-pillar, and prolific and masterful professional fictionist, but I personally suspect he’s sold his soul to dark powers in order to strike that balance.
Spec Can: You also co-edit the Postscripts to Darkness series of Canadian horror anthologies. What are some of the things that you are hoping to do with the series?
Sean Moreland: I hope to see our audience, which is currently very small, gradually expand, to which end we are currently re-thinking our production model. Local offset print runs, which we’ve been doing up to Volume 4, really painfully restrict our ability to get the book into the hands of people outside of Ottawa. What is key for me, and for the other editors, though, is being able to preserve our own unique editorial vision for the series, creating a space for unsettling, and often trans-genred, works of dark literary fiction.
Spec Can: What got you interested in doing microfiction for the first two volumes of Postscripts?
Sean Moreland: PstD got its start following a microfiction competition I organized with Dominik Parisien as a way of generating some local involvement for the Rolling Darkness Revue’s Canadian tour back in 2010. The stories had to be 750 words, max, and were judged by Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins of the RDR, who picked three winners. Dom and I were so impressed by not only the winning fictions, but also many of the other submissions, that we decided we should turn them into a book. The first issue was thus conceived as a one-off thing, but it subsequently snowballed in terms of interest (my own and that of my subsequent collaborators in the project, Aalya Ahmad, Dan Lalonde, Ranylt Richildis, James Moran, and of course, Dom, but also that of a small, but growing, body of readers) and so the series was born, and so it continues.
Spec Can: Why was it important to you that Postscripts to Darkness include illustrations and interviews as well as fiction? What does this add to the volume?
Sean Moreland: I loved the idea of including a few illustrations to highlight the fictions, and in the first volume, the illustrations were based on the three winning stories in the contest I mentioned. It was Aalya who persuaded me that having an illustration commissioned for each story in each issue was a great model, and she was, of course, quite right. I’ve always loved the possibilities of ekphrastic art, and having a gifted visual artist bring their own unique conception to an original work of fiction can be a potent combination. The interviews were initially, I think, Dom’s idea – he conducted our first, with Amal el-Mohtar. They have become a central part of the project because they give us an opportunity to connect with writers we admire, to draw the attention of our readers to the great things they’re creating, and to help disseminate their work and thought in some small way. We’re expanding the interview component of the project now, with an eye to including more interviews on the website, and printing excerpts from these in the books themselves. This will free us up to have longer, fuller interviews, without over-stuffing the book itself and squeezing out the fictions. Our readers will see this new format playing out for the first time in PstD 5, which we plan to launch in May or June.
I want to thank Dr. Moreland for his critical exploration of the power of horror, and for reminding us, as readers, that we have power to question and look at the deeper cultural issues evoked by and explored through horror.
You can explore Postscripts to Darkness further at http://pstdarkness.com/ .