I read, and listen to, a lot of horror. Because of my work at Pseudopod, it’s sort of compulsory and as a result I’ve found myself developing a pretty solid working knowledge of how modern horror fiction is slung together, what works, what doesn’t, and the difference between the two. I love good horror because it reaches out of the page, grabs you by the lapels and refuses to let go. Good horror is unlike anything else on Earth, completely threatening, completely safe and completely involving.
Jim Bihyeh writes great horror.
We’ve run three of his stories, all dealing with Coyote, sometime Trickster, sometime Saviour, full time God, and his interactions with the modern Navajo nation. Each one has had a perfectly-realised combination of genuine horror and a sense of the world beneath the one we see, something wild and beautiful and impossibly dangerous.
I was delighted, then, to find out that Jim has released an audiobook anthology of ten of his Coyote stories, available from Amazon and Audible. I talked to Jim about Coyote, why he writes and just how much trouble a God can get into…
How did you get started writing?
“The first stories I ever wrote were scary ones. I’ve always been fascinated by creatures and phenomena that deny and defy our assumptions of the universe. And I was also fascinated by the human capacity to handle the terror of those creatures and phenomena. So most of my first stories that I wrote were about that.
“I wrote my first stories on our crappy little IBM word processor that my Grandpa had given us, with its blue screen and constantly crashing hard-drive. I wrote stories of witches burned at the stake rising from their ashes to take vengeance, and vampires traveling in boxes hidden underneath wagon carts of medieval carnival troupes. I was mostly regurgitating different versions of the tales I’d been reading. This was when I was about 11 or 12 years old.
“Some of my first stories were actually written for the Saturday nights when my friends and I would walk up into the mesas above our hometown and sit around a fire and tell scary stories. Those stories were just sort of sketched out on a notecard and then I would improvise them around the campfire.
“The first story I ever wrote and submitted was called ‘The Crypt’, a horror story about a mausoleum in a cemetery that kept trying to lure this kid into walking close enough for it to grab him. Eventually it did.”
Who were your influences?
“As I said before, I was always interested in the ‘unexplained creature’ and the human capacity to withstand terror. The place I found both of these was in horror stories and ghost stories. And I read these wherever I could find them – Alvin Schwartz collections, QL Pearce, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelly, Arthur Conan Doyle.
“The first full novel I ever read was Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot . I was nine years old and I was glad my mom never said anything about it to my grandparents. That real evil – economic, soical, romantic and moral – that was rotting that town and those people from the inside out is still so powerful to me today. I think it probably made me want to write those sort of stories – about real people facing extraordinary circumstances.
“As I got older, I discovered short stories by Americans like TC Boyle and Sherman Alexie, whose artistry is so powerful, like watching an acrobatic dance. I wanted to learn from them.
“I also have read a lot of John McPhee and Doug Preston – both so clear and descriptive of the hidden dimensions of everyday life. I really wanted to bring that kind of energy to my stories.
“Oh, and I have to give credit to DJ McHale for creating the television series Are You Afraid of the Dark ? That show and those stories are still awesome today. There was just so much creativity there and the feeling of horror emerging from the corners of the everyday world.”
What led you to short fiction?
“When I was in college, the first book I bought for myself with my first pay check from working in the cafeteria dish room was Stephen King’s On Writing . And he gave some great advice in that book. One of them was to start in a manageable way: writing short fiction. So I did and I learned the craft through failure and experiment.
“And lots of revision.
“But I always liked that experience of the short story: concisely depicting a shard of life in a dramatic and meaningful way. It always reminded me of that advice from Aristotle’s Poetics, that stories never end and they are infinite, yet when they are told they must be of ‘a certain magnitude’. You can’t show too little (that’s what novels are for) and you can’t show too much (that’s what short stories are for).
Tell us a little about the background to Coyote Tales?
“These stories started with the tale, ‘Reservation Monsters’. I thought to myself one day, ‘You always hear these stories about “monsters under the bed”, but when did I ever read a short story about an actual monster under the bed?”
“And so I sat down and I wrote it almost exactly as it is in the collection. They say, ‘write what you know’, and so I set the story on the Navajo Reservation, where I grew up. And as I did, I connected with all of these memories of my hometown and my friends and the stories we liked to tell. It also stirred up some pretty horrible memories that I’d either put into some shallow graves or had just forgotten. They came back, too. Many led to the other nine stories in the collection.
What led to your decision to take the fascinating, overlapping approach to the stories you've chosen?
“I’ve always been fascinated with authors who decided to build fictional universes, who admitted that everything within their subconscious, imaginative world was connected. That everything is bound together but infinite at the same time. That felt magnetically organic to me as a teenager. I first saw it in Stephen King’s fiction, interlinking the novels like Salem’s Lot with Insomnia with The Dark Tower series. Then I noticed that device in Faulkner’s creation of Yoknapatawpha County. And then in Sherman Alexie’s collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven , you see those character relations spread out like roots through this convincing landscape.
“That the stories would interconnect just seemed to fit, since the collection focuses on Coyote – the trickster – stepping into the modern world to misbehave. It didn’t make sense to me that he would just show up for these isolated reasons. Everything would probably develop around a wider pattern of movement, just like predators in the wild don’t just focus on one particular prey or location. They range widely and hunt imaginatively. It made sense to me that Coyote would probably do the same. The form seemed to fit the character.”
Your route to publication was a slightly unusual one. Tell us why you chose audiobooks first?
“I love audiobooks. I drive an hour to work, and then about an hour and a half through traffic to get home. So I listen to about an audiobook a week. I’ve always had a pretty good oral imagination (which probably comes from where I grew up). So the audiobook seemed like a great fit for any future projects.
“But I also noticed as I finished the stories and looked around for publishers that the world in which Ray Bradbury and Stephen King got their start is no longer here. Those horror magazines and short fiction venues are either gone or just did not fit the sort of stories I was trying to tell.
“But I’d been listening to fiction podcasts for a while, and found a great venue online called Pseudopod, where the venue for dark tales was still clawing its way out of the grave week by week. I submitted to them and got to develop a great relationship with the editors and one of their narrators.
“Cayenne Chris Conroy really loved the stories. So we decided to do the entire collection on our own and then things went from there. I found the publisher, Blackstone Audio, through a writer friend of mine, and I was so happy they were interested in the stories. Here’s hoping they go to some interesting places.”
Do you have a dream project? Something you'd love to do but haven't got to yet?
“I suppose my dream project would be to write a collection of folktales based on traditional stories from the Reservation.
“I’ve also been researching a history of Ganado Mission in Ganado, Arizona for the past ten years. And I started a rough draft last year. It’s boxes and boxes and boxes and files and files and files of information. I’ve conducted dozens of interviews and oral histories. But I think it’s going to be worth it in the end, to help tell the story of a small town and a good people who established the first (and only) nursing school for Native women.
“I would also love to publish a YA novel someday.”
What's next for you?
“I’m working on a collection of folktales based on traditional stories from the Reservation – hey, you’ve got to chase the dream right? Truthfully, my ‘dream project’ is whatever I’m working on at that time. I’ve been very fortunate (and persistence) in that I have found ways to write while also working a job that allows me to serve my community and my country, while also feeding and housing me in between writing sessions.”
Thanks, Jim. Coyote Tales is a superb collection of stories, which you can buy through Audible at the link below. If you want to sample the book first, click on the Pseudopod link to listen to one of the stories from the book.
Pseudopod 159: Reservation Monsters: http://pseudopod.org/2009/09/11/pseudopod-159-reservation-monsters/
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