C. Sanchez-Garcia is the author of the novellas Mortal Engines and The Color of the Moon. The latter ghost story, his most recent, was deeply influenced by the famous old Japanese ghost story of "Hoichi The Earless." In this fascinating interview, Garcia talks about his work, the Japanese influence, and compares the Kwaidanshu ghost stories of the East to the traditional Western ones.
Tell us a little about yourself and the type of fiction you write.
I’m a new author, and I’ve been writing consistently for about two years or so. I wanted to be a writer ever since I was kid, but it took me this long simply to develop the ability to sit at a keyboard and write. I write different things, but my natural home seems to be erotica. It's something which is very primal and basic to life, and it’s a genre which has been taboo for so long, that now that it's opening into the mainstream you can go almost anywhere with it. It’s the literary equivalent of punk rock. But I don’t want to write crap. As much as possible I want to write character driven stories that are about something. So if I write erotic horror or erotic science fiction or literary, I still have the same goal. I want the stories to have heart. I want them to be about something and to say something. That’s the goal I always aim for. I don’t claim to hit it, but I aim for it.
The main theme of my own life has been a failed search for God. So a lot of my stories seem to arrive at spiritual themes by the time I reach my final draft. It takes me a long time to write a story because I overhaul it and overhaul it and overhaul it. I don’t even know what the story is supposed to be about until the third or fourth draft. My novella The Color of the Moon took me about ten years to arrive at its final form. If any of your readers would like to see it, you can visit the Whiskey Creek site here or you can see the book in some detail here (more or less). There's a link there to read the opening scene of Mortal Engines and The Color of the Moon here.
When did your love for the dark side of things begin?
I’ve always loved a good story. I read the novel Dracula when I was ten and it scared the hell out of me. I used to go to monster movies and have these terrible dreams. I’m still that way. Tell me a good story. So you have to ask yourself – what is a good story? Horror stories tend to be plot driven. But the best ones are character driven. To tell a really scary story I believe you have to care about the person The Very Bad Thing is about to happen to.
Silence of the Lambs. Very scary, because Lecter and agent Starling are people you can like. Lechter is a maniac, and yet you kind of like him. He’d make an interesting dinner guest as long as you don’t turn your back on him. Life can be very dark. One day you reach down to scratch where it itches and you find a lump down there. You’re driving in the dark at night and some kid runs out in front of your car and you can’t stop. Your life hangs on an edge and can fall apart very suddenly. We think of ourselves as good people, but maybe we’ve never been pushed to the limit. We don’t know the things lurking inside our own souls.
Horror stories are fun because you can turn them off. They’re fun because vampires are fun and interesting, but what the guy who lives next door to you is doing to his wife when he gets drunk isn’t fun at all. There’s horror and then there’s horror.
Did you have any favorite scary books during your teenage years?
My literary heroes were pretty diverse. Looking back on what I read then, I had good taste. I’ve always been a fan of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. They’re old school, but their stories have stood the test of time. Names to conjure with. Any beginning writer who wants to study plot should spend some time watching those old Twilight Zone stories from the sixties written by Matheson and Rod Serling. Those two were very strong plotters. It's hard to tell a good story in a half an hour and they knew how to make every scene and word count. Matheson especially had the knack of making simple plot structures that were straight forward and powerful. The guy on the plane who thinks he sees a Gremlin. The convict on an asteroid who’s given a robot woman as a companion. Very powerful stories, and those characters had a lot of soul, so you hung around to see how things turned out for them.
Bradbury tends to write vignettes like Anton Chekov did. Little puffs of story, like opening a window and closing it. His novel Fahrenheit 451 is still one of my favorites after all these years. I pop it open once in awhile and study the paragraphs and sentence structures, to try to understand how he does what he does.
Bradbury knows how to make a beautiful punchy sentence that does the work of a whole paragraph. “The blowing of a single autumn leaf. He turned, and the electric hound was there.” If you've been reading the novel up to that point, those two lines are enough to make you go "Oh shit!". A few pages of stuff like that makes you jump at shadows.
Anyone who wants to write well has to love language. You don't have to know what a gerung or a past-perfect predicate is, but you have to love sentences and paragraphs. Sharpshooters like Bradbury and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez can teach you to love the written word. Guys like Matheson and Stephen King can teach you how to tell a story.
Your novella collection, Mortal Engines and The Color of the Moon, includes a ghost horror story based on the classical Japanese kwaidanshu "Mimi Nashi Hoichi," or “Hoichi The Earless.” Would you tell us about this Japanese tradition and what compelled you to write about it?
The Color of the Moon is my riff on the classic Kwaidanshu “Hoichi The Earless,” a ghost story so famous it actually has a bronze monument to the monk-musician Hoichi in the part of Japan where it is alleged to have actually occurred. You can read about that here.
There are even Kabuki plays which reenact this famous Buddhist ghost story, as with many other kwaidanshu. My version, although changed greatly into an erotic love story gone bad is still set in medieval Japan about 1181 AD with roughly the same characters and issues. It took me ten years off and on to write The Color of the Moon, published by Whisky Creek Press Torrid. The early drafts were strongly influenced by a Japanese lady named Mire Uno who lived in Miyazaki Japan. She had a website but it doesn't seem to be up anymore. There you can read classical Japanese ghost stories which I helped her edit. I met her online when I was researching the background for The Color of the Moon and sent her my first draft. From a historical viewpoint, my first draft was completely off the rails and she let me know it. She knew a lot about that part of Japanese history and straightened me out on the technical and cultural details. So for the most part, my final depiction of social customs in medieval Japan is historically accurate because of her, which I think gives the story a gravity and realism it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Japan has a tradition of classical ghost stories (Kwaidanshu) going back hundreds of years. Lately they have been revived in the West as popular horror movies. The Ring and The Grudge are western rebuilts of Japanese horror movies (such as “Ju-On”) which in turn are modern retellings of ancient kwaidan such as “Okiku” and “The Peony Lantern,” which every Japanese kid grows up hearing at their grandma's knee. So without knowing it, Americans are being exposed indirectly to Japanese Kwaidanshu in the movies.
American movies have always borrowed heavily from Japan. Star Wars is a space opera version of Kurosawa’s samurai movie The Hidden Fortress. The Magnificent Seven is the cowboy version of The Seven Samurai. It works the other way too. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s retelling of MacBeth with samurai instead of Scotts, and Ran is a samurai version of King Lear.
How would you compare Japanese ghost stories to those traditional ones from the West?
Kwaidanshu are subtle in ways that sneak up on you. Mire Uno once explained to me that you live with the ghosts in a daily sort of way, that the ghosts are hidden in everyday objects, the steam coming off of an umbrella. A face in a cup of tea. In The Color of the Moon, Shoji sees Lady Dainagon’s face for the first time in a bucket of water. In the movie The Ring (based on the Japanese movie “Ring-gu” which in turn is based on the ancient Kwaidanshu story “Okiku” about a young woman who is drowned in a well) the ghost comes out of a TV set. That’s very Japanese. Japanese culture has a thing of seeing even inanimate objects as having a soul and feelings. A rock isn’t just a rock. A tree isn’t just a tree. If you hate the car you drive, you hurt its pride and the car will run even worse. There are cemeteries where toy dolls are buried with markers. Everything has soul. The living and the dead communicate almost routinely through mundane objects. In Asian culture in general the ghosts live side by side with the living. They sit down and drink coffee with you and read over your shoulder. Kwaidan even have a vampire tradition in stories such as “Lady of The Snow.”
Asian stories take some getting used to, because they don’t follow that Aristotle line of beginning, middle and end and climax and finish. They’re usually Ray Bradbury-like vignettes. When you reach the end you usually go “Huh? That’s it?” There's no resolution. It’s the atmosphere, the presence of chaos which is spooky. Japan is an island packed with people for thousands of years. In a situation like that, cowboy manners don't work. Everything has to be orderly and socially disciplined and defined. Kwaidan are about order falling apart, a daughter-in-law who breaks a valuable plate, a blind musician who is called away to perform for someone he can't see. Little things that spin out of control.
Western ghost and horror is plot driven, a decent person in a scary situation. These stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Good wins, evil is vanquished. The monster always dies. Horror and science fiction tend to reflect the national nightmare of any given time. Most of the horror movies of the '50s and '60s were about nuclear weapons. Even the comic book movies today like Spiderman and The Hulk and Fantastic Four originated during the Cold War of the '60s, and they all got their superpowers from atomic radiation. That was the national nightmare in the '60s. Now the movies are variations of terrorism and maniacs who break in your house.
Up until a hundred years ago, western horror stories have all been ghost stories, until Edgar Allen Poe came along. In some ways he re-invented western horror stories, with hearts buried under floors, guys walled into basement wine cellars, people buried alive. Now horror can be about almost anything. Stephen King and Richard Matheson come from the same tradition as the Japanese in a way, because they mix horror with the ordinary. Instead of a haunted castle, the monster can be in a supermarket aisle. The vampires can be sleeping in your own garage. The gremlin is tearing up the engine of the airplane you're sitting in. Those are like American Kwaidanshu when you think of it.
Chinese horror movies I think will be the next thing. Chinese film makers are shameless, audacious and nuts. No concepts. There's even a Kung Fu zombie movie with undead karate masters. You name it, its out there.
Did you have to do a lot of research to write your ghost story?
Well, Mire Uno was the first one to straighten me out. After that I knew I had to do my homework. I bought a book called The Take of Heike translated by Helen McCollough. This is a Japanese classic hundreds of years old, and gives the background story for the civil war between the Taira and Minomoto clans and the fall of the Taira at the samurai battle of Dan No Ura. There’s a lot of poetry in that book. Some of the poetry is in my novella, and there is a lot of poetry I wrote myself. The waka poem in the story that begins “I myself I know must sleep as a traveler…” was actually written by the real Lady Dainagon No Suke who was a historical person.
What are you doing this Halloween?
Whatever I can afford, which isn’t much. It would nice if someone invited me to a Halloween party.
Do you have any other horror books in the works?
I recently wrote a story called "How Paradise Comes to the Blind" which would qualify for a horror story. I would really, really love to put together a story collection of international erotic ghost stories from all different cultures. All countries and cultures have traditional ghost stories. But I haven’t been able to find another Mire Uno to get me started. She was one of a kind. Maybe somebody reading this would like to get together on it if they have the expertise.
Who are your favorite horror authors these days?
I like Stephen King of course. I like his older stuff better than his new stuff. I still read the old school guys. I like Anne Rice’s early vampire novels. Interview With The Vampire is definitely still the best vampire novel ever written. Among horror writers, I like Poppy Brite. Neil Gaiman has some really good story collections. It’s rare these days to find someone who actually scares me though. Usually if you can find a good story that keeps you reading to the end you’re doing good.
Anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Write to your authors. If you come across a story that you really like, tell the person who wrote it. They may not write you back, but they might. Writers are a needy bunch. You write this stuff, you toss it out there and you never know if it reaches anyone. It’s a very solitary activity. So if you read something that really knocks you out, tell that person. Let them know. There've been many times I almost quit, and then someone sent me a note about something they read that I wrote and it fired me up to give it another try. That's why I'm still here.
Thanks for this interview, Chris, and good luck with your writing endeavors!