By, Vince A. Liaguno
Jameson Currier found horror by living through it — and surviving it. As one of a group of gay writers chronicling the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s and early 1990’s that included Armistead Maupin, Randy Shilts, Paul Monette, Andrew Holleran, and David Leavitt, Currier came to prominence by focusing on the lives of gay men and their personal experiences with the epidemic. His stories, novels, and non-fiction work of that time period – including his debut short story collection Dancing on the Moon (Viking, 1993), Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel Where the Rainbow Ends (Overlook Press, 1998), and articles for The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among others – committed to page the routine everyday fear, anxiety, and grief gay men of the time experienced in between hospital visits and funeral homes, between post-coital self-reproachment and self-examinations for telltale bruises.
In an interview with the author last year in Windy City Times, writer Wayne Hoffman summarizes Currier’s writing:
“The breadth of his personal experience is evident in his writing, which is moving without resorting to melodrama, familiar without feeling clichéd. In the new book's [Still Dancing (Lethe Press, 2008)] title story, for instance, he describes a man who has lost many friends to AIDS as feeling ‘like a boy lost at an amusement park who can't find his family and doesn't understand why they are not where they should be.’ It's a characteristically vivid yet unsentimental description of what it's like to wake up and find that your entire chosen family, your whole support system, is suddenly gone — and many people who survived the worst years of the epidemic will likely find that Currier has, once again, put into words the things that they've felt for years.”
And while horror writers of the time were exploring how everyday encounters with classic cars and kindly St. Bernards turned into life-and-death battles with nebulous supernatural evils, Currier was finding the horror in the everyday realities of blood tests and looking at one’s own body in the mirror and how these previous daily banalities could bring unfathomable terror and their own life-and-death battles of an entirely different kind.
Although protease inhibitors and gay issues du jour like marriage equality have now relegated the deadly disease to history in the larger public consciousness, Currier still feels the impact of the virus’ lingering aftereffects. So it’s no surprise then that AIDS has morphed into a ghost itself in Currier’s latest work, The Haunted Heart and Other Tales (Lethe Press, 2009), a collection of short stories through which readers encounter ghosts of many kinds. Indeed, it’s the specter of AIDS that visits more than one of the characters in Haunted Heart, which was recently named Editors’ Choice for Best Dark Genre Single-Author Collection in DSM’s Black Quill Awards.
Dark Scribe Magazine recently caught up with Jameson Currier to explore how his seemingly unconventional route to the genre fiction scene has been more well-traveled than one might think, how 9/11 factored in, and the process of putting together an award-winning short story collection.
Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us about The Haunted Heart and Other Tales.
Jameson Currier: It’s a collection of gay-themed ghost stories — traditional narrative ghost stories with gay protagonists and gay ghosts in contemporary settings and addressing issues of relevance to the gay community.
Dark Scribe: Explain the process of putting together a collection like this. How did you select the stories for the collection?
Jameson Currier: I wanted all the stories to reflect a haunted aspect of a gay relationship – a deeply felt, passionate relationship between gay men – and that made them much harder to construct and write and select than I had imagined. These are not scary, spooky stories but heartfelt psychological ones. Many of them also required me to do a great deal of historical research. “The Country House” summons up the spirits of two gay lovers from the Civil War – refugee soldiers from an army camp. “The Bloomsbury Nudes” revolves around the artist Duncan Grant and his drawings and lovers and is infused with art history as well details of the “black arts” of Aleister Crowley and his society, so I had to do a lot of reading to make that historically accurate, as well as fly to London to make sure that I was depicting the Bloomsbury neighborhood and buildings correctly. “A Touch of Darkness” uses the sodomy trials in the colonial era as the source of its gay haunting, so it required me to study a number of historical maps of eastern Long Island to pinpoint the exact location of the house and reference historical texts about the Hamptons, where the story is set. But I’ve always been something of a closeted gay historian, so there was a great deal of pleasure and pride in finding these sorts of unclaimed stories to use as the basis of these hauntings. I had originally thought that the collection would be thirteen stories – you know, because it’s such a quirky, odd, queer number – but after eight years of writing these stories they seemed to feel collected at twelve. I had thought about including “Ghosts,” a long AIDS-themed novella that was included in my first collection of stories – Dancing on the Moon – as the thirteenth story, but in the end I decided to only include the newer work.
Dark Scribe: If you had to pick a favorite story from the collection, which would it be and why?
Jameson Currier: Not the favorites game! I’m very proud of all the stories in the collection, because I think that each one stretched and educated me as a writer. “Death in Amsterdam” is the kind of story I would never have written unless I embarked on creating this kind of collection. It’s an old-school suspenseful story in its construction and owes a lot of inspiration to Daphne DuMaurier and Thomas Mann. Some of the stories sat in my head for years – like “The Vision” and “The Man in the Mirror” – which is dangerous because you never know when you start to put them on paper if they will turn out the same way, but I’m very pleased with how readers are responding to them. “Wait!” took five years to write because the ending never seemed right to me until one morning I had one of those “Eureka!” moments – which generally doesn’t happen when I write a story because by the time I start writing I usually have it carefully mapped out. Others are the distillation of hundreds of pages of drafts – “The Incident at the Highlands Inn” is really a novel that I spent over a year writing about an abusive gay relationship that ends in tragedy. It is based on a true story, but when it occurred to me how to write it as a ghost story – as the progression from being human into becoming a ghost – I was able to write it easily and quickly because the plot and the characters were already fully fleshed out in my mind. I’m very happy every time I re-read “The Woman in the Window,” because I see that it was a turning point in my writing style because of its longer narrative plot and over the years I have come to regard those families depicted in it as my families. “The Bloomsbury Nudes” is one of the most complex short stories I have written and I’m proud of all of its details and history. And there are a handful of my own stories that bring me to tears every time I read them and “The Haunted Heart” is one of them. I turn into a sobbing mess probably mid-way through that story. The relationship of the composer and waiter is based on guys I knew, and it is a summation of many years of many fears and desires. I think it also captures the complexity of how survivors of any tragedy move on with their lives.
Dark Scribe: This is your first, full-blown foray into the horror/speculative fiction realm. What prompted the new direction at this point in your writing career?
Jameson Currier: After 9/11 a lot of my book reviewing and feature writing markets dried up and I began to struggle with what sort of fiction I should write next. As a writer I have consciously tried not to repeat myself – rewriting the same story over and over – so I began looking for something different to write and that might expand beyond the boundaries of my own life. I was inching into a science fiction story or a mystery when I re-discovered my boyhood copy of the Modern Library edition of Famous Ghost Stories edited by Bennett Cerf while I was in Atlanta visiting with my parents. I read “The Phantom Rickshaw” by Rudyard Kipling and “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood and was blown away by their literary merit and suspenseful crafting. But I think M.R. James’s “The Mezzotint” had the biggest impact because it made me put the book down and go, “this is what I want to try to do next.”
Dark Scribe: The cover art for the collection is stunning. Tell us who did the artwork and something about the artist.
Jameson Currier: My original intent was to do my own illustrations for each of the stories and I did drawings for all twelve stories – when “The Man in the Mirror” was first published in the gay speculative fiction magazine Icarus, it also included the artwork I had drawn for the story. I used elements from each of the story illustrations to create a composite piece of art for use on the cover of The Haunted Heart and Other Tales. But my drawing talents are very limited and the final product I created for the cover looked too cartoonish and more like the cover of a boy’s adventure book. The two elements I felt that were absolutely necessary for the cover – a feeling of a sweeping, haunted romance and a gay relationship — were missing from it. It was really hard to let go of that concept of my illustrating my own stories, but I knew I had to be edited out of the picture, and I decided not to include any of my illustrations with the stories because I also realized that the art might influence how the stories would be interpreted. Even before I had started working on my own illustrations I had seen Richard Taddei’s paintings on the website of the Leslie-Lohman gallery and followed them to his own [artist] website, and his paintings had produced an immediate, emotional and passionate response in me because they were gorgeous and complex — and I had always thought one of his paintings would be perfect for the cover of this book. When I finally bit the bullet on the limitations of my own drawing talents, I emailed him and asked if he would consider doing a painting for a book cover and I was delighted when he agreed. Since then, I’ve seen many of his paintings in person in his studio or at galleries and they are exquisite. I am actually thrilled to say that I also now own the painting Richard created for the cover — and I know that every time that I admire it that I never, in my wildest dreams, could have ever painted something that brilliant myself.
Dark Scribe: You were one of a handful of important gay writers chronicling the AIDS crisis – which some would argue was true horror – in their work at the height of the disease. How did this earlier focus in your writing inform what you’re doing now?
Jameson Currier: I began writing as therapy as a way to navigate my own fears of becoming ill. I remember around 1982 and 1983 standing in front of a mirror and worrying about freckles and whether or not they were Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions because so little was known. This might seem silly now, but then, it wasn’t. There were no blood tests for HIV then. Friends were running to doctors because they were breaking out in sweats at night or because their tongue was coated white. It was such a suspicious and maddening time. This was true fear – that your health and youth could just be ripped away from you – the same kind of fear you could experience if you were on an airplane and you heard an engine stop working. It was impossible to control. And this fear never relented. It was always there. And there were days when I had to put it all on paper in some kind of way so that it wouldn’t sit and fester in my mind. I was working in the Broadway theater at that time and I had a lot of co-workers who had symptoms and then became ill and died. What I was witnessing was a change in who I was and the communities that I was a part of. I had to write my thoughts down in order to keep myself from going mad. By the late 1980s, after I had been the care partner for a good friend who had died, I experienced a mental breakdown, where I had to take all the pieces of my psyche apart and put them back together. Since then I’ve realized that the epidemic will always be a part of my history and one of the reasons I must write is to keep telling of the unfortunate tragedies – and miracles – of these times. Even if this is not specifically spelled out in every story or book I write, it is there, always a part of my consciousness and who I am today — a survivor.
Dark Scribe: Having survived a global health crisis that claimed many in an entire generation of gay men, is horror now a way of dealing with the specters of the AIDS epidemic and those lost so young to it?
Jameson Currier: I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon that many AIDS writers who are still writing today have inched their way into the horror genres, whether or not they have specifically accepted that labeling – Michael Cunningham wrote a ghost story as part of Specimen Days and I believe he is at work on a slasher screenplay called Beautiful Girl. Dale Peck, who wrote Martin and John, has also written Body Surfing. Andrew Holleran became obsessed with Mary Todd, and his novel Grief was in many ways a ghost story. But I also think that this is reflective of each of us as writers also becoming older men and therefore more involved in spiritual issues and the thought of an afterlife. I know while I was at work on these new stories that I had to confront the idea many times of whether I believed in ghosts. And I do — but I also see it as an infinite and connected spiritual plane, where ghosts reside along with angels and fairies and demons and ghouls and other unseen energy types.
Dark Scribe: Who are some of the writers who most inform your own writing?
Jameson Currier: I consume a vast amount of books and I read not only for pleasure but to be inspired and to study craft and technique and many times when I am writing a story and stuck I will take a paragraph from another author’s novel or short story and type it into my computer, in order to find the structure, voice, character and details of what was created. I would say I am more an admirer of a specific work than I am an admirer of a specific writer, because many times subsequent works by the same author will disappoint me. That said, I would say in short fiction I will read anything by Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, and Stephen King. Yes, Stephen King. There is a terrific amount of craft behind everything he writes, which I think is also part of the reason behind his spectacular popularity, but I particularly admire his short fiction. Novels – I would probably address the ones that speak to me as a gay man – The Swimming Pool Library by Allan Hollinghurst is one of sexiest books I have ever read, and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood is the gay man’s version of Mrs. Dalloway. For the ghost stories in The Haunted Heart and Other Tales, I read hundreds of ghost stories looking for inspiration and technique. Rising to the top were always stories by M.R. James, Edith Wharton, and a relatively unknown writer to me before named May Sinclair.
Dark Scribe: Fantasy time. You’re stranded on a desert island and can only have one book, one CD, and one movie with you. Which would you choose?
Jameson Currier: Favorites time again! Oh no! Well, The Lover by Marguerite Duras is really a novella, but I have to say it is one of the most evocative reads I have ever experienced. If I were to be stranded on a desert island at the age I am now, which is well beyond fifty, I would want a short book that would produce a emotionally satisfying read for its own narrative – the story of a young French girl involved with an older Asian man as told by the woman many years later – as well as for its ability to summon up moments and memories of my own life – as it was and as I desired it to be – and this book could do all that.
I think if I had one movie it would have to be an action thriller that I could watch over and over, and there is a World War II submarine movie called U-571 that I have watched too many times already. I can watch and watch this movie and never be bored. Go figure.
If I had one CD it would be The Way We Were by Barbra Streisand, the album she made that released around the time of the movie, not the movie soundtrack. I think her voice is at its most expressive and emotional on this album in songs like “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” “My Buddy,” and, of course, the title track. I can’t imagine how my life would have evolved if I had never heard her voice. And, yes, I believe I have redeemed myself as a gay man with this list with this last selection! (laughs)
Dark Scribe: What are you working on now?
Jameson Currier: I’m polishing the last paragraphs of a new novel that will release this spring, The Wolf at the Door, which is set at a haunted gay-owned guesthouse in New Orleans. It’s not a horror story per se, but more of a comic hallucination of an overworked man who drinks too much and thinks he is seeing ghosts and angels and all sorts of other spirits. I hope that it’s regarded as the kind of spiritual adventure of, say, A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life. I think Avery, the main character in the novel, comes close to who I am today, a funny, boozy, aging gay man, but this was also another story that required me to do a lot of historical research — this time on New Orleans and its history of slavery and the fact that there were many freed slaves who owned slaves themselves. And I have outlined several new ghost stories which I see as a sort of sequel book to The Haunted Heart, but right now, most of my time is being spent on finishing a draft of a new novel called The Third Buddha, which is set in Manhattan and Afghanistan post 9/11. It’s a large, complex literary endeavor which I hope will provide the same sort of reading experience that Where the Rainbow Ends created. This time, instead of the Book of Job for inspiration, I have used the story of The Good Samaritan, recasting and retelling it during a time of crisis and within a clash of religions and cultures. It’s required me to do a massive amount of research on Afghanistan. I hope it can represent what it means to be an articulate gay activist and citizen of the world.
Dark Scribe: What’s one thing that your readers would be surprised to know about you?
Jameson Currier: That I adored Avatar in the same way that I adored The Lord of the Rings. Here is an amazingly detailed and complex world being presented to the viewer. That movie looks like they spent over $200 million on it and I think it will resonate many years in the future because it’s like taking a trip to another world. I consider it a true event.
Dark Scribe: What scares Jameson Currier?
Jameson Currier: Not having a decent book to read on a plane, not enough time off from the day job to write, and no booze in the house when I really, really need it!
For more information about Jameson Currier, visit his official author website.