Back in 1990, a young writer named Jeffrey Thomas submitted a short story to Deathrealm — a disturbing and thought-provoking tale called "Foreign Bodies" — which made me an instant fan. The story ran in the Spring 1991 issue of Deathrealm, to no little acclaim. In the intervening years, Jeffrey Thomas’s distinctive and powerful voice has become pervasive in the dark lit field. He may be best known for Punktown, his brilliant and original horrific/humorous/bizarro/ultra-dark/SF universe, but his catalog of standalone novels and short stories is extensive and impressive. Here, Mr. Thomas tells all, or something damn near.
GC: I first became acquainted with your work when I was editing Deathrealm magazine back in the 1980s and 1990s. Since those early, formative days, how do you feel your work has evolved, both creatively and professionally? Have the processes of doing business as a writer impacted your drive as a creator?
JT: It was an exhilarating feeling back in those small press days, when a short story sale to Deathrealm, After Hours, 2 AM, etc. might thrill me even more than I feel now with the sale of certain full-blown books. One becomes a bit jaded, but of course writing and publishing remain rewarding. The business side of things can be a hassle, even a distraction, especially when a publisher doesn’t do a lot to promote your book and you’re expected to be proactive and take care of much of that yourself. As I’m not good at that stuff, and fairly reclusive, I’d prefer to focus only on the creative side of things.
Craft-wise, I think I’ve evolved quite a lot over the past several decades, in that I write more slowly, more carefully. I’ll no longer jump into writing a short story just built around some quick idea, unless I feel a real commitment to it, and it will be a worthy representation of how I want my work perceived. I’ll be sure that story is polished thoroughly before letting it go into the world. Honestly, in the early days I’d bang out a short story, not even give it a once-over proofread, then shoot it off to a publisher all in a breathless rush. Because of that reckless approach, my earliest published stories are, to my mind now, something of a mixed bag. Some are quite good, others very slight.
GC: Around 1980 or so, you created Punktown. And since the Year of our Lord 2000, there or about, with the Ministry of Whimsy Press release of Punktown, it’s a property that has enjoyed not only popularity among both readers and authors but true staying power. A) Can you describe what drove you to this singular territory? B) My impression from your history is that this place represents something of a passion for you. Is it one you think you’ll continue revisit regularly?
JT: That’s right — in 1980, while my father was driving me home from work one afternoon, the concept of Punktown just bloomed in my head as if it had been under construction in my subconscious until that moment of revelation. That brainstorm wasn’t like what I described earlier, some quick idea or single image to build a story around; this was a whole, expansive concept — the same concept I work with today. And that is: what if I created this nightmarish science fiction-style setting, that is not so much a prediction of the far future as a grotesque, funhouse mirror distortion of now? A setting in which I could address all manner of social commentary, but in a darkly satirical mode, the way there was political and/or religious commentary worked into the phantasmagorical paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or the Inferno of Dante. Punktown is also a setting that can support, and blend, many types of genres and literary approaches, from SF to horror, from noir to dark comedy, with more than a few nods to the Lovecraftian.
Because Punktown offers so many flavors, there’s been a lot for readers to find entertaining in the stories (and I think of my readers as tourists to Punktown). Likewise, because I can do so much in that world, it makes it easy for me to keep going back. I have freedom there. Though I like to write outside of Punktown, too — including work that involves certain other fantastical settings I’ve developed — I’m sure I’ll always keep returning to Punktown. I certainly haven’t grown tired of it yet. My earliest Punktown stories, a series of novels written in the 80s, remain handwritten and unpublished, but I started publishing Punktown short stories in the small press in the early 90s, until Jeff VanderMeer released my first collection of them, Punktown, through the Ministry of Whimsy Press in 2000. Several decades and numerous novels and collections later, in 2021 Centipede Press released a gorgeous three-volume set of most of my Punktown short fiction. I say most, because there can never be a definitive collection as long as I’m extant. Even as we speak, a few new Punktown stories are close to publication in anthology appearances, both in the US and in foreign translation.
GC: I love your three-story chapbook series, such as THE COMING OF THE OLD ONES, THE SUMMONING OF THE OLD ONES, DARKER WORLDS, et. al. The packaging is ingenious. It’s clear that H. P. Lovecraft has inspired you — and in a world of purveyors of pastiche, your work stands out as unique and powerful. Do you still enjoy working in the HPL mythos? What about it has driven you — and, if applicable, still drives you— to contribute to it?
JT: I took my inspiration for those chapbooks directly from a series of chapbooks I saw fellow Lovecraftian writer William Meikle self-publishing. Rather than gather previously published stories into a book-length collection to submit to a publisher, as I had always done before, I decided to release them in three-story chapbooks under my own imprint, instead. They’ve done fairly well for me. I’ve also republished some novels and collections for which the rights had reverted to me, so as to keep them in print. And yes, I have produced quite a lot of Lovecraftian work by now, either directly linked to the Cthulhu Mythos or at least inspired by cosmic horror of that sort. I fell in love with it from reading my first Lovecraft stories in 1985. I was drawn to their horrifying sense of awe, the hugeness of their threats, the use of science fiction elements (alien entities) in place of the supernatural (demons and ghosts). But I don’t want to be lost in the shadow of other creators — I want to maintain my own distinct literary identity, explore my own imagination — so in recent years I’ve tried to refrain from writing overtly Lovecraftian horror. Still, like Michael Corleone, just when I think I’m out they pull me back in, and I’ll get invited to some cool Lovecraftian anthology or other.
GC: You are adept at both novels and short fiction — an enviable talent! Do you have a preference for one over the other?
JT: I can’t really say I have a preference... though I do write a lot more short fiction than novel-length work, despite the fact that novels have wider appeal. (This largely has to do with frequent anthology invitations.) Right now, I’m enamored with the novella length. I’m currently at work on a novella that takes place in my setting of the Unnamed Country, which is a fictitious Southeast Asian country (inspired by my thirteen visits to Viet Nam), where the supernatural is extra prevalent. This novella will be included in a new Unnamed Country collection called Gods of a Nameless Country, to be released by JournalStone in 2023. Lately I’ve spent more time in the Unnamed Country than in Punktown. Maybe it’s just for a change of pace, but it may also be that I miss Viet Nam so much. Hopefully with COVID-19 on the wane I can get back there again. My daughter, who is half-Vietnamese, is eager to return, as well.
GC: What are you working on now? And what lies ahead for you and your writing?
JT: My most recent novel was The American, published by JournalStone in 2020, a hyper-dark crime thriller laced with the supernatural, which takes place over a span of fifty years in Viet Nam. My most recent collection, aside from the Centipede Press Punktown omnibus, was Carrion Men, from Plutonian Press, 2020, which gathers a bunch of my horror stories that don’t take place in any of my fantastical settings such as Punktown, the Unnamed Country, Boneland, Hades, or Gosston. Speaking of Hades, Dark Regions Press will be publishing a standalone novella called The Half-Damned Girl, which takes place in my vision of the netherworld. And speaking of Gosston, a collection of all my fiction set in that creepy little town — which exists in an alternate world abutting our own — is set to appear soon from Weird House Press. That one’s titled Entering Gosston. I also have an Unnamed Country standalone novella coming soon from a cool publisher of beautiful collectors’ editions, which I can’t announce just yet. And again, regarding the Unnamed Country, 2021 saw the release of a lovely little printed chapbook (mini collection?) called Scenes From a Village, from Oddness, the publisher of Forbidden Futures magazine. Though I often feel like I’m slowing down a lot in my old age (it’s okay to say it!), it sure doesn’t sound like that’s the case, does it?
GC: Thanks a bazillion, Jeff. This has been great, and all the best to you and your future endeavors. And thanks to y’all who have stopped by to check out “A Graveside Chat.” We’ll be back with more in another week or so.