We had a chance to exchange e-mails with Nick Mamatas, who has been very busy writing and editing and teaching during these last few months. He recently sold a new novel to Solaris! We talked briefly about his story “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” in EVIL IN TECHNICOLOR, and gnosticism, and life in these challenging times.
VB) Few horror monsters are as classic as the horror monster you selected, but I thought it was interesting you went even further back in time to when this particular creature was a famous stage play. What inspired you to write about this specific horror monster, and through the vessel of a theatre play?
Nick Mamatas) Frankenstein’s Monster? Well, on the most basic level, as Evil in Technicolor’s theme is the films of Hammer Horror, American-International, and other studios, I guessed that the other contributors would rush to do vampire stories, so I’d do Frankenstein. I also spent a lot of time with the book and other representations a couple of years ago. I was the English-language adaptor for Junji Ito’s Frankenstein manga, which was released in 2018 by VIZ Media, as part of the novel’s bicentennial. As part of that project, I read both the 1818 and 1832 editions of the book. I also purchased a copy of It’s Alive!: A Visual History of Frankenstein by Elizabeth Campbell Delinger, which was the exhibit book for the Morgan Library & Museum’s show on Frankenstein, its antecedents, and various reimaginings of the monster and story.
The play, Presumption! is interesting, because as in the movie we all know, the creature is mute and unnamed. It’s discussed at length in the Delinger book. And since one of the themes of the anthology is performance, a play seemed as good as a movie set for dramatic possibilities.
VB) Gnosticism played an important role in your story. What advice do you have for writers about incorporating relatively uncommon mystical or philosophical ideas into the fairly tight medium of short stories and novelettes?
Nick Mamatas) My technical advice is an inversion of the classic: sometimes you just need to tell, not show. Just lay it on out. As most metaphysical or philosophical texts take the form of an argument (so dialogue between characters), an authoritative statement (so omniscient narration) or a more or less gnomic parable or thought experiment (stories) it’s pretty easy to integrate ideas into a narrative, so long as you don’t make every tyro’s mistake of deciding that you need a “universal” character or an “everyman” and thus make someone generic as possible to stand for the complete human experience. The universal is embedded in the particular, which is what both philosophy and mysticism have to teach us.
if you’re asking about cultural sensitivities, it’s always important not to reduce cultural beliefs to caricature, kitsch, or cliché, and that’s true of both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic beliefs. The millionth parodic depiction of a lecherous and acquisitive televangelist may not be strictly speaking oppressive, but it sure is tedious and just serves to keep readers and viewers from activating their brains. You know that old joke about the guy who shovels elephant shit at the circus? Okay, that’s all I wanted to do, remind you of the joke without having to tell it. That’s bad writing.
Having said all that, a lot of obscure material isn’t a matter of a cultural index, but personal revelation. It’s always funny when someone objects to, say, a character who can read auras because “auras don’t look like that in real life.” I also had a fellow leave a live-action roleplaying game I was running twenty years ago because one of the themes was the conflict between God and the Devil which was wrong as they actually work together—as if G vs D was something I’d made up just to antagonize him.
VB) How has the pandemic impacted your daily life?
Nick Mamatas) Significantly, but I’ve also been very lucky. I was the events coordinator for a bookstore, and of course the bookstore closed for several months and all events are canceled indefinitely; I’m down to two shifts a week, which is enough to keep me on the corporate health insurance for now, at least. A startup web magazine I was writing a column for folded in mid-March, and a publisher I was editing books on contract for ceased all contract work the same week, and delayed paying out invoices, citing the virus. Naturally, book sales collapsed in the spring, as every store was closed and Amazon deemphasized book orders to keep the toilet paper trucks rolling.
But as luck would have it, I sold a novel in February and the first advance payment came in early April, as did the second advance payment for my just-released anthology of Lovecraftian fiction, Wonder and Glory Forever. That meant I could pay April and May’s rents and child support. I was denied unemployment insurance for several months, but then some came through. When I wasn’t qualified for unemployment payouts, other things materialized, including the chance to write “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” for Evil in Technicolor, but also the Booksellers at the End of the World program at Bookshop.org, the development of new online classes for the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute, a Small Business Administration grant (I was able to help several other people through the process of getting one, and it felt good to be useful), a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, and some freelance editorial work for individuals who want to improve their manuscripts.
I’ve also been lucky to spend more time with my seven-year-old, as his extended spring break has turned into months of distance learning via Zoom and Seesaw. He’s healthy as are all my close family and acquaintances—a couple of my cousins have had COVID (like all Greek-Americans, I have several hundred cousins who I know and keep tabs on; of course one or two of them would contract it) but nobody was lost or even hospitalized. I’ve been pretty healthy—I actually gained fifteen pounds and then lost twenty. I put my coffee table in the bedroom and turned my living room into a personal martial arts studio. My son won’t see his grandparents for the holidays, and his birthday party was a cake and a cell phone propped up on a water glass so my mother could see him blow out the candles on his cake, but he’s resilient and his spirits remain high. That’s the important thing.