Stephen Graham Jones’s story “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” is the first story in The New Black anthology, and it’ll horrify you and break your heart. Stephen was kind enough to stop by and talk about it, and more. Please give him a warm welcome.
Aside from having a son and daughter and suspecting what-all I’d do for them, or trying to figure if there’s anything I wouldn’t, the kind of tactile part of this story, it comes from me being stupid enough to have relied on a digital compass once, hunting on the reservation. I was way back in this dead-tree place, where the root pans were all vertical and there were wolf and bear tracks all up and down everywhere, and I’d been lost for an hour or two but not really worried about it either, as I had that stupid compass, and technology would never fail me. So, when I decided that night was going to catch me and I had to get back to the truck or else freeze or become food, I started following my compass north, which was where the truck was. Only, I kept seeing this same upturned root pan again and again. It was about twice as tall as I was, and the tree it belonged to hadn’t been blown over for all that long. Finally I put my boot track under that rootpan just to be sure, and yep: an hour later, there was my bootprint, crisp like I’d just stepped away. And it was getting cold, and dark, and there was this white rabbit that kept following me. Every time I’d look around, there it’d be, peeking over a log, or not really hiding very well behind a tree. Kind of creeped me out, so I shot it. With an elk rifle. But I got it in the head, so there was still some meat. You don’t shoot things you don’t mean to eat. I dressed it out a bit—rabbits don’t take much—tied it to my belt and kept on with this being lost thing. Only, now, I was lost in thick country, with bear and wolf sign all around. Grizzly sign, I mean. Some places you’re walking on their tracks, their scat will be all berries, and that always makes me not as scared, as I’m not made of berries. This bear, though, its scat was all wound with hair.
Finally I got to a place where I could walkie-talkie over to who I was hunting with. My dad. He told me to come north, even shot his rifle three times so I could zero in on it. I started that direction again, dragging that bleeding rabbit, and of course I lost the walkie like ten steps later—show me a handheld radio I can’t lose inside of five minutes—and then I saw that stupid boot print under the root pan again, so I went the most opposite way I could, since nothing I was doing was coming close to working, and this time where I ended up was in the wolf’s den, in a low place out of the wind and the sun. Their smell was there, and there was a big hole they’d half-dug out, and there was a moose antler I guess the pups had been chewing on. I took the moose antler, so now I had that, a dead rabbit, my rifle, no walkie, and, as it turned out, a digital compass that, unless you’ve read the directions and know to press a certain button to refresh it every once and again, will tell you that every direction you’re going is north. I finally stumbled out of the woods a couple of hours later, half-frozen, holding that rabbit by the hind legs in case I needed to drop it fast. What I’d lucked onto was a logging road, with its ruts all frozen solid. I followed it downhill, found my dad’s headlights after a while, through the trees, and then, a few months later, I wrote “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.”
I always wanted to be a custom farmer. I mean, all through high school. Before that I wanted to be Conan, pretty seriously. Before that, an architect. But I also had this Blue Angels poster my dad—he was in the Air Force then—had given me in fourth grade, a poster I’ve still got. I was pretty sure I was going to be a Blue Angel as well. I was just out of reading The Right Stuff. But then I read L’Amour’s Last of the Breed, so I figured I was going to be a Blue Angel pilot who wrecks, then becomes Joe Mack, who’s pretty much Conan, he just answers to a different Crom. However, right around nineteen years old I saw that old John Ritter movie Skin Deep. Ritter was my all-time hero, of course, from Three’s Company. Most everything I know about dealing with people, I learned from Jack Tripper. But in Skin Deep, he’d grown into this thing called a ‘writer.’ And this writer’s life, man, it was chock-full with everything I wanted. So here I am, I guess.
What do you like to see in a good story, and what authors or novels have influenced you the most in your work, and your life?
By the time I was twelve I’d read all the Louis L’Amours there were at that time—ninety five. And I was also really into Conan. Back then, I thought he was Robert Jordan’s character. I found Howard soon enough, though. But, really, what I’d cite for influence, even before PKD and DFW and Pynchon and Barth and McMurtry and Erdrich and Vonnegut and OMNI? Three monthlies. Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, and The Enquirer. We lived with my grandparents on and off a whole lot, growing up, just between other places, and I spent a lot of time there besides that. And they’d been subscribing to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic since 1957. I read every single one of those cover to cover, and most of the condensed books as well, and, when I’d run out of books, I’d go to my grandmother’s lazy susan in the cabinet, and spin it, pick a soup or bean can from wherever it stopped, and read those ingredients, then spin that thing again. I had to be reading. Reading was always the only thing that made sense. Reading was always there. Reading never once let me down. When we’d go town, too, the city, I mean, Midland, not the drugstore in Stanton, I’d always manage to come back with an Enquirer or a Weekly World News. They were gospel to me. They were so formative. Without them showing me how truly possible everything I could halfway suspect was, I don’t know how my imagination ever would have gotten this particular infection it’s got.
As for what I look for in a story, though, or in fiction altogether, it’s sincerity and intentionality. Does this matter to the writer? Is the writer staking everything on this story? If not, if they’re just showing off or indulging themself or doing this for the check or doing it because they’ve got the ‘authority’ to do it, then I’ll pass, thanks. And I’ll also pass if they’re innovating solely for innovation’s sake. Innovate on your own all you want, please. Garage bands are what keeps music vital and new. But you only get radio play when it works. What I mean with something being intentional is that it’s crafted, it’s been pored over, all the mechanics are in place and contributing, the writer’s gone over and over this piece, taken out all the fluff, all the dead-ends, so that I’m only getting the absolute best, the cleanest, the stuff that’s been sculpted towards a very specific purpose. And that purpose, it’s not a thematic or vague or ‘literary’ ending. For me, endings that aren’t taking a blind leap into a dark space, and just hoping there’s a ledge out there somewhere, those endings are failures, those are what I call craft endings, which just come from being a close reader, and ‘projecting’ out to what the end should look like, going by what’s come before. There’s art too, though. And art doesn’t know any rules. Art takes chances. Art’s only art if it’s taking chances. But I’ve just been bad-talking stuff. How about: I like stuff with heart, but with teeth as well. Some days Life of Pi’s my favorite novel ever, and sometimes it’s Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, and other times I know for sure it’s Lonesome Dove, and It, and Love Medicine, and Speaker for the Dead, and I’ve got to stop now or I never will.
I like that dark fiction can elicit a response from the reader that the reader doesn’t intend to give. A visceral response. Terror, dread, even just a gross-out or jumpscare. I don’t know of any other genre that can pull that off. I mean, romance, say, those endings can make you cry happy tears, sure. But only if you let it. It’s the same with all the genres. Except, for me, horror. Horror doesn’t ask permission. Horror just does what it’s going to do. If you’re reading it, it’s likely going to do it you. Really, reading horror, it’s a lot like going to Crystal Lake: everybody told you not to, that one dude even said you were doomed if you did, and there were signs along the road warning you away, and the place looks all killery, so, when you show up there with your backpack slung over your shoulder and a hopeful look on your face, you deserve what you’re about to get. It’s the reason you took the road to this particular shelf in the first place, right? So buckle in, it’s probably going to get bloody.
What’s next for you?
A horror collection with Dark House, After the People Lights Have Gone Off. Horror stories, of course. Stuff that disturbed me writing it, made me kind of want to bleach my mind with iCarly. People Lights is here in September, though anything horror in the fall, I always consider it a Halloween book. Halloween, for me, it runs pretty straight through from Labor Day until Thanksgiving, with spikes of mask-wearing sprinkled out through the rest of the year as well. Remember how Joe Hill had Christmasland in N0S4A2? I really identified with that, because I spend a lot of time in my head in Halloweenland. Like, if you run fast enough at Bradbury’s Halloween Tree, and close your eyes at the last moment, and have both hands around a fist of candy, and if you’re wearing the right mask, you might just break through. And then spend the rest of your days trying to get back out.
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