Award-winning horror and science fiction author Dale Bailey is known for creating sympathetic characters, deft prose, and emotionally impactful tales. His “Teenagers from Outer Space” earned a mention in our review of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017because we loved its powerful social commentary on emotional abusiveness by human beings, contrasted with the peaceful behavior of aliens in an alternative 1950s Ohio. We chatted with him about his sci-fi inspirations and his writing.
RECURSOR: Who are the biggest sci-fi/fantasy influences on your writing?
BAILEY: By far the most important influence on my work was Ray Bradbury. I stumbled onto his work in sixth grade and consumed everything I could find by him for years thereafter. He married rural settings to the tropes of science fiction and fantasy, which so few writers do. (Zenna Hendersonand Clifford D. Simak were others.) Together, these writers empowered me to use the world I had come to know growing up in rural West Virginia as fodder for my own short fiction. And Bradbury, especially, taught me to care about the prose.
I discovered Stephen King not long afterward, and his early books spoke to me in much the same way. The sheer narrative drive of King’s work seized me, and I tore through everything he’d written as quickly as I could. I remember reading halfway through The Stand in a single night and standing up bleary-eyed in the dawn, feeling like I’d been transported to some place both wonderful and terrible. I still look for that kind of hit when I open a novel: it’s like mainlining pure narrative heroin.
I cut my teeth on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, whom my father introduced me to before I was really old enough to understand exactly what I was reading. Robert Silverbergtaught me to aspire to whatever literary quality lay within my grasp. George R. R. Martin’s very early work reminded me of the sweeping romanticism the genre was capable of expressing, and he had a certain lyricism in his prose that appealed to me.
There were others, as well. I consumed the magazines I could find every month — Analog, Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and (if I was lucky) Twilight Zone. I read Heinlein, I read Asimov’s fiction and his memoirs, I read story notes, I read — well, I could go on answering this question all day. But those were some of the big ones.
What inspired you to become a fiction writer in the SFF/horror genre?
I read a lot as a kid and I read widely, and I felt from a very young age that I had stories of my own to tell. But when I stumbled into the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, it felt like what I’d been made for. The genre just spoke to me in a way nothing else ever had (and it continues to do so).
Your father was an influence on your writing too.
When I was a kid, my father would let me stay up with him to watch Hammer horror movies. And sometimes we would walk at night — I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 — and out in the middle of nowhere, it was absolutely dark and sometimes the moon would shine down so that the shadows of the trees lay rippling across the grass. And I would ask him if he thought werewolves existed and if there really were aliens and a dozen other questions of that sort.
To his credit, he always considered these questions gravely and said that he didn’t really know, that the world was full of mysteries, and they might well include wolfmen and vampires. Though I’m sure he sometimes regretted those answers when I couldn’t sleep at night, he always held the line — anything could happen; the world was limitless in scope and awash in mystery.
Every word I write, I write for my father, I suppose, and I miss him terribly, daily, hourly, now that he is lost to me.
Some of your work has elements of horror or dark fantasy in it. In your view, what benefit does a look at the darkness in humanity provide to readers?
One of the classic takes on this is the question of catharsis, which reaches all the way back to Aristotle and runs straight through to Stephen King’s introduction to Night Shift and beyond. Somehow, by facing the darkness — the certainty of death and tragedy and horror everywhere around us — we relieve ourselves of that burden, if only temporarily.
Fiction is like an amusement park ride in this respect. You have the feeling of mortal peril, when in fact you are in very little danger at all. You’re kicked back in your recliner with a book and a cold beer, or somewhat more perilously perhaps (but still pretty safely) strapped into the car of a roller coaster as it hangs for a heartbeat at the apex of its climb before that first terrifying plunge. And then it’s over. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? It’s just pretend, after all. Except it isn’t, not really. It’s more like a rehearsal. The real thing is coming for you sooner or later.
What are a few of your favorite films and/or filmmakers?
I love Guillermo del Toro, especially in his more artistic mode. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water strike me as some of the finest films I’ve ever seen. The first two Star Wars movies were really important to me (I try not to think about what happened afterward), as were the other fantasies of that era — Close Encounters, Time Bandits, Raiders of the Lost Ark, others. The original Night of the Living Dead and the two films that followed are touchstones, as is the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
And, just for a shift of gears, I’m an absolute sucker for romantic comedies.
But it’s the fantastic that always draws me back. It’s the sweet spot for me, and if you perused the movies on my shelves, you’d find the collection leans heavily in that direction. Why? I don’t know for sure. Like calls to like, I guess. I think in the guise of fantasy’s metaphors, you’ll often find more of truth than you will in a flat documentary or realistic narrative.
How much do filmmaking styles influence your writing style, if at all?
I think filmmaking changed the way fiction was written across the board. You go back to the 18th- and 19th-century novels, and you find long stretches of narrative interspersed with occasional dramatized scenes. That’s largely reversed itself. We tend to expect one sharp scene after another in our fiction now. We follow the protocols of film. I do that as well, more often than not, but the old approach still calls out to me sometimes. I like the stratagem of the narrator who interrupts to comment upon the action, though you rarely see it these days, and I have sometimes used it myself.
Beyond that, I don’t usually think much about film as I write — though I have recently written six or seven stories which draw upon the titles of old science fiction and horror films for their inspiration — “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” “Teenagers from Outer Space,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” and a handful of others. So at least in these six or seven stories, film has been very much on my mind lately.
Tell us about your latest novel, In the Night Wood, which is out this month.
In the Night Wood is my take on the menacing nature of fairy stories, which are too often denatured in the hands of Disney and others. Fairy tales are scary as hell. “Little Red Riding Hood” is a terrifying story, as is “Hansel and Gretel.” This novel, which is itself a kind of fairy tale, is also a meditation on why we like these kinds of stories in the first place. I also think it’s pretty creepy and suggest that you buy a copy for yourself and one for your mother, too. It makes for perfect Halloween reading!
Dale Bailey is the author of eight books, including In the Night Wood, The End of the End of Everything, and The Subterranean Season. His story “Death and Suffrage” was adapted for Showtime’s Masters of Horror television series. His short fiction has won the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award, has been nominated for the Nebula and Bram Stoker awards, and has been reprinted frequently in best-of-the-year anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Year’s Best Fantasy, and Best New Horror.