Interview - Cameron "Josef K." Suey

While I’m averse to anything remotely resembling risk in real life, I adore horror fiction in any medium, and masochistically enjoy the feelings of tension and paranoia resulting from a particularly effective work. Creepypasta is a font for these types of stories, though admittedly it’s a kind of “diamonds in the rough situation,” with a lot of its content originating from that cesspool of a message board, 4chan. But working late on a lonely winter night a year and a half ago, one of the site’s aforementioned jewels caught my eye: “Zero,” by Josef K., the deeply unnerving apologia of a nihilistic survivalist unleashing a viral plague upon the human race. Intrigued by the short story’s pessimistic, “no turning back” tone, I decided to click the author link and check out more of Josef’s work on his site. Roughly an hour later, I was steadfastly hammering out the rest of my essay, eyes solely on the computer screen and not daring to look toward the nearest window. I had just finished the story “Exit,” and was terrified at the thought of so much as glancing at those panes, only to see some long, pale face staring back.

The author inadvertently responsible for ruining my sleep on several occasions is not actually the protagonist of one of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novels but Cameron Suey, a 33-year-old husband, father and video game producer based out of San Francisco. When he hasn’t been working on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and its sequel, Suey has crafted some of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. He was also kind to answer a few questions about writing, perspective and inspiration I sent to him via email.

DL: It's probably safe to say that your "Josef K." pseudonym originated from Kafka's The Trial; some of your stories, like "Regret to Inform" and "North," feature protagonists pursued and antagonized by powers beyond their control. Perhaps this is conjecture on my part, but I see a link between these scenarios and the Kafka story. Or is this just coincidence?

CS: This is where I admit something shameful: I've never finished The Trial. I've read a lot of other Kafka in the last few decades, but I first found a copy of The Trial when I was in elementary school. I was a voracious reader from early on, and I'd heard the name Kafka before, so I grabbed it from a library donation bin on a whim. I think I only read the first sentence. It completely unnerved me. There's so much going on in those first few clauses, so much implied and unsaid. I lost that copy before I could continue reading, but a decade later I still could have repeated that first line word for word.

When it came to a pseudonym (I originally was posting on 4chan's /x/ board, challenging myself to write a quick creepy story every week), I originally picked the name “Indrid Cold,” but switched to the direct Kafka reference, because I wanted to hang a lampshade on the fact that my early stories were mostly pastiche of the short fiction writers I was reading at the time. 

Stylistically, Kafka wasn't as strong an influence on me as some other authors, but I've certainly internalized his fear of the faceless monolithic structures that emerge from human civilization. The idea that a group of people with the best intentions can be responsible for atrocities is far more compelling and frightening than an axe murder. The perversion of good intentions, amplified by individual apathy and willful blindness in our day to day lives, is not only a more frightening sort of evil, but more relevant and commonplace.

“Regret to Inform” in its current form is more about an individual monster who is adept at camouflage. But originally, the twist was that all authority figures in the protagonist's world were monsters to some extent, so some of that thematic, and, ahem, Kafkaesque element still remains. “North” draws from Kafka in a slightly different way, in that it's about turning a blind eye to the evil inside good people (Spoiler: the Narrator and the antagonist are one in the same, or at least, share a body).

DL: Several more of your stories features terrifying and occasionally intelligent creatures that share similarities: pale skin, terribly thin and gangly, and with needle-like teeth. Are these creatures part of some meta-narrative, or do they just resonate with you?

CS: There's absolutely a meta-narrative afoot here. Between “Exit” and “Roadwork,” which share a mutual character, and “The Gift,” I'm building a monster, or at least a race of monsters. I'd also say that the creatures in “West” and “Collision” probably deserve to be in the same family. 

I've had a planned novel for a while that deals with the society and origins of these creatures, and where they come from, from the point of view of a man finding the border town between our world and theirs. While I like the story, and the layered mythology I built for it, I can't help but feel it robs the whole thing of some of its weird power and mystery. That and I have to change the title, now. It was called Shades of Grey...

The tall, thin imagery is nothing new to horror, and I've not really spent much time digging into its origins. It shows up in some form or another in many an author's tale. The slight perversion of something normal and recognizable is more insidious than outright monstrosity. (If I'm being honest, I'm smugly pleased that the posting of most of these stories predate the Slender Man phenomenon, if only by a few months. I'm a fan of Marble Hornets and synthetic urban legends in general, but to this day I get the question: "Is this supposed to be Slender Man?" on those stories.)

For me the image comes from one of my earliest childhood memories: I'm three years old, and trying to go to sleep in my bedroom, with the door open to the lighted hallway. As I watch my mother and father pass back and forth in front of the door as they move through the house, I see a third figure: something very tall, and very thin, nearly to the roof, pacing the hallways. The next day I ask my parents who else lives in the house, and they don't quite know how to answer me.

For weeks, I see the figure, always shadowed and flitting quickly past my doorway. The more I look for him, the less he appears. It becomes transparent, made of smoke. Over the course of a few months it grows thinner, until it is just a stick figure of shadow, passing my door once a week. Then one day it fails to reappear.

I'm a rationalist and a skeptic. I'm sure there's a reasonable mundane explanation for why I have that memory. But the beauty of childhood is those fears leave indelible marks, even if you can later rationalize the event away.

                                                                       Christian Frederikson, from "One."

DL: Pieces like "Zero," "One" and "The Blues" centre on events leading up to and falling out from an apocalyptic virus. Are you intending to collect these stories in a larger narrative or anthology?

CS: Absolutely, this is a much more explicit larger narrative. I'd add "Before" into that as well, even if it's a few decades later. "Before" was the first story idea I had, a post-zombie western I wrote out as a screenplay long ago. "Before" was the first chapter of that arc.
I don't have any explicit plans with this setting, other than I love having a world and wide that I can return too. It gives me a great canvas for looking at small scale interactions against a larger stage, and continuing to add to the big picture a little bit at a time.

DL: While you usually stick to third person, I've seen you fiddle around with perspective and format. On this subject, a) Which perspective and/or format do you prefer, b) which do you feel helps augment the horror in a given story, and c) which do you hope to experiment with?

CS: This is something I almost never think about. To me, the story is the character, and the character is the voice. It's entirely organic, when I get an idea, the perspective and verb tense are baked in to that idea. The times I've gone back and tried to switch viewpoint and tense have been traumatic. It never works. That said: First-person present tense. It's immediate and intimate, something I think that serves horror well. Certainly every combination has a story that it serves the best, but getting inside a character’s head, and seeing only what they see means that the story is subjective, and I think that plausible doubt serves the sort of internal psychological horror I love, and present tense removes a sense of safety. Although I played with it in “Dust,” there is an inherent safety to past tense, especially first person. If I am telling you a story that occurred in the past, then I lived to tell it. Not so in present tense. It's narrative without a net.

I'm trying with my current long form project, (codenamed: Cradle) to switch between verb tense depending on the viewpoint, and it's not entirely successful thus far. But it will play with another format I love, that of the epistolary. I'm a huge fan of history, and documentary, and especially fiction that subverts those tools to tell a narrative that looks like non-fiction. The plausible creepiness of found footage films, and dryly written Wikipedia articles is something I'd like to learn how to emulate better in prose.

DL: Which writers and works have had the largest influence on your growing bibliography, and how?

CS: While I'd read some Lovecraft in high school, a desire to read everything he'd written struck me about five years ago, which signaled the beginning of my major obsession with horror. Maybe not the beginning, as I've always loved ghost stories, but I certainly began an earnest period of actively seeking out the history of horror and the finest examples. 
Lovecraft's prose is a mixed bag, and you can see me struggling to both emulate it and avoid it early on, but his themes of cosmic horror, and the diminished importance of man on the world's stage were ahead of their time and hugely influential on me.

Stephen King, obviously, is the face of modern horror fiction. While I haven't loved everything he's written, I have read it all (starting with The Gunslinger in third grade), and I think there are few other authors that can match his consistent quality and prolific output. There's a lot of baggage with his work, as those with more literary pretensions tend to frown on it, (I have a few strong opinions about the ghettoization of genre fiction in general). But I think nearly every writer can learn from his clean, simple prose and storytelling, to say nothing of his widely varied imagination. His On Writing is required reading for any writer.

In a lot of ways, I think short horror fiction is more effective than a novel, as it's an difficult tone to sustain over the long term. In that respect, I've been influenced by Richard Matheson and Thomas Ligotti in particular. If you've never heard of Ligotti, check out Teatro Grottesco, his most recent collection. It's dense, unforgiving prose that I'd characterize as philosophical or existential horror. Many times I put that book down in frustration knowing I'd never write anything quite like it.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski is the scariest thing I've ever read and another time I threw my hands in the air and almost never wrote again. I had a nightmare about the book after I finished it. Not the story. The book itself.

Dan Simmons I respect not only for his horror work (The Terror, The Hollow Man and Song of Kali, despite its appalling racism, are among my favorite books), but also his ability to shift genres like a chameleon. Part of the strange marketing of books forces authors into predictable buckets and shelves. Dan Simmons has written a book in nearly every genre shelf, and most of them are superb. (Let us never speak of Olympos.)

Recently, I'm entranced by Chuck Wendig's ability to do the same sort of genre shifting, and his openness about the craft and business itself is fascinating. He's talked lately about genre being a construct primarily of physical shelf space, and that in the zero overhead world of the internet, genre is not a limiting factor, but just a set of paints that anyone has access too. The author is the genre, and there's no reason to limit yourself. Oh, and Mockingbird is about as good a horror novel as I've ever read.

Outside horror, China Miéville's weird imagination is unmatched, Cory Doctorow is my bet for the most likely prediction of the future, and William Gibson's examination of the culture of the present is stunning in its insight. 

Finally, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garret, two non-fiction books about diseases had an enormous effect on me, as evidenced by the amount of pandemic-related stories I've written. (I almost majored in epidemiology. I had no idea what I wanted to do in college, so I applied to three different schools, and planned to let that determine my major. Tulane for epidemiology, Cornell for astronomy, NYU for film. I didn't get into Tulane, and Carl Sagan died that summer, so I ended up in New York taking film classes.)

DL: Has your work been published anywhere?

CS: I've had some work chosen for a few website magazines, Trapeze, Flashes of Speculation, and Fiction on the Web, and I'll have stories in a few as-yet released print anthologies from Hazardous Press and Cruentus Libri Press. For a long while, I was content to just post rough drafts online, never editing older pieces, but I'm trying to take the whole thing much more seriously in the last few months. At any given time I have 10+ submissions out at the professional-payrate magazines or markets, but so far, I've just gotten enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room.

DL: What do you hope for in the near future?

CS: I want to find the time to balance my family, my job, and writing, it's an equation. I want to finish the novel I started (Cradle, the third I've broken ground on, but the first one I'm taking seriously), and I want to sell at least a few stories to professional pay-rate markets in order to get SFWA and HWA membership. I'd also prefer that human civilization continue for at least a hundred years, more or less uninterrupted. My youthful excitement on the coming apocalypse has been tempered by being a father.

DL: Thanks a lot for your time!

CS: My pleasure! Thanks for this opportunity to drone on about things I enjoy droning on about.

You can find more of Cameron's work at The Josef K. Stories.

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