It begins with a hint of the familiar: Jordan, a hard-living musician, returning to his hometown for his brother’s wedding, awaiting the legacy of familial conflict that awaits him. That’s how Jarret Middleton‘s new novel Darkansas starts, and quickly takes a turn for the ominous and surreal. Jordan’s familial legacy turns out to be much more complex than he’s realized, and when a pair of uncanny figures with their own agenda arrive on the scene, the tension becomes even more gut-wrenching. I talked with Middleton about the evolution of the book, horror fiction, and his work with the reissue imprint Pharos Editions.
You have long-running experience in music scenes; how did you come up with the particular family of musicians featured in this novel?
Darkansas started many years ago with a failed short story sketch about two twin brothers who got in a fist fight at one brother’s wedding. The antagonist brother that starts the fight, the one who isn’t getting married, comes back home to the Ozarks after being gone for almost ten years. He is a country musician playing dives across Texas mostly, and his great source of shame is the resentment and animosity he feels towards his father, who is this famous bluegrass legend. The story grew into deeper, more abstract territory when I started to understand the nature of the myth that governed their family–where each generation one twin always ends up responsible for the death of their father–but it always started from that sketch of a rough-and-tumble country musician carrying on in the shadow of his famous father, and the confrontation with his twin brother surrounding his wedding, which of course goes horribly wrong.
Did you have any particular models for Jordan’s musical career?
Not in the literal sense, but I drew inspiration from a few of my favorite contemporary folk-country artists, like Scott H. Biram, Cory Brannan, Ben Nichols, Tim Barry, even Justin Townes Earle. Then, because it’s a generational tale, I got to draw from that dark country tradition like the Louvin Brothers and others to drive home the relationship with alcohol, madness, and the devil that tends to run in their family.
At what point, when envisioning the book, did the supernatural aspects come into play? What would you say that they add to the novel that a straightforward account of familial conflict would lack?
Darknasas starts off by lulling the reader into a false sense of security because it’s more or less realist on the surface. Then, once you have met the characters and understand their situation, that serves as a jumping off point into the more surreal, mythic aspects of the story. At the heart of the novel lies a cyclical murder myth that, going back to the end of the civil war, every generation of Bayne men have been twins and one twin has always murdered their father. That ups the stakes in a brand new way that has been present since the outset of the novel, but whose depth and complexity is revealed slowly over time.
I have always distrusted realism because it’s too reductive–characters either survive somewhat changed or they don’t. Even when it’s done well it’s still somewhat predictable and more or less boring to me. I like to be truly surprised as a reader, and I like the sense of being confronted with an author’s entirely unpredictable imagination, where I genuinely don’t know what is going to happen because I barely even know what the rules are yet. So, as a writer, that is what I always set out to do. I like asking myself potentially unanswerable questions, creating characters and resolutions to plots that are potentially unknowable, shedding light on the precipice of the eternal mystery.
Where do you classify the novel: do you see it as a novel with surreal or horrific elements, or as a horror novel outright?
I try not to classify anything, not the art that I enjoy and certainly not the art that I make. That said, almost all of my writing is literary fiction that is horrific and surreal. I am definitely not a genre horror writer in the truest sense. I revere so many writers that are, which is how I know that I am not one. Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and H.P. Lovecraft were all huge influences on me, but no more than James Joyce, Marguerite Duras, John Hawkes, Clarice Lispector, Henry Miller, Robert Walser, Herman Broch, Maurice Blanchot, and Flannery O’Connor.
What’s exciting about our moment is that so many incredible writers are out there engaging in new mythmaking and transgressing genre lines left and right, combining literary fiction with horror, dystopian sci-fi, tackling everything from the sins of the past, to climate change, to new creation myths. Lidia Yuknavitch, Colson Whitehead, Jeff VanderMeer, Benjamin Percy, Amelia Gray, Victor LaValle, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Jac Jemc, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and so many more are putting out genre- and mind-bending work right now.
Darkansas‘s protagonist is largely unaware of these larger machinations surrounding the fate of his family for much of the book. How much of these larger devices and mechanisms did you need to have figured out prior to writing the novel?
The murder myth was already put in place and so was the story of the Bayne family and Malcolm’s wedding. Then it came down to pacing, getting a feel for when the tension in the main plot would boil over or events would break down enough to reveal this larger architecture underneath the surface that the main characters are only partially aware of even existing. I’m a big outliner, if only to know where my starting point is so then I can deviate from it. Characters make their own decisions on the page, so you have to be open to that. If a character is leading you somewhere, then that is where the story needs to go. I always find myself fascinated by characters who are in close proximity to the truth but for one reason or another–personal demons, family strife, or the conspiracy of time and the fates themselves–they never become fully aware of it.
Where do you, personally, stand on questions of fate and free will?
I’m of the belief that we basically know next to nothing, so even the way that question has been framed traditionally or historically I think is probably wrong. I don’t believe in the map of fate for every living soul carried out by an omnipotent creator God that sits outside of time, and I don’t believe the universe is an accident and by that logic, so is free will, so the moral and ethical outcome of our decisions don’t mean anything. Both lines of thinking have brought us to the brink of catastrophe, which is why I find it so exciting that artists are creating new myths about our true natures, about where we came from, what has been lost or forgotten, and where we might be going. How we are going to survive, essentially.
There’s this great quote by the French poet and fabulist, Fontaine, that says, “a person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” That is more interesting to me because the forms of fate and of free will get to play out to their logical ends, but they are ultimately implicating of each other, as they often are in life.
Via the imprint Pharos Editions, you’ve been involved in bringing a number of well-regarded books back into print. Is there anything that you’ve learned from dealing with lost classics over the years?
Every book takes its own circuitous path to find readers. Being an editor for Pharos was so fascinating because every book we acquired had these vastly different histories attached to them. Some titles were public domain, others required eight different signatures of warring parties that owned equal shares of an inherited literary estate. Ultimately, it gave me a greater appreciation for how great writing can arise in the most unlikely places and unfortunately slip off the radar with greater regularity than we might think.
Part of the Pharos model is partnering with contemporary authors who curate the list by selecting their favorite titles to bring back into print. So, I would never have known about Julie Hayden’s brilliant The Lists of the Past if it wasn’t for Cheryl Strayed. I would never have read Bubble Gum & Kipling nor had the pleasure of working with Tom Mayer if it weren’t for Andre Dubus III. I would not have gotten to work on regional nonfiction classics specific to the Pacific Northwest, like Wintergreen by Robert Michael Pyle, which David Guterson selected, or Naked Against the Rain: The People of the Lower Columbia River 1770-1830 by Rick Rubin, which Rene Denfeld selected, both northwestern writers. I would never have had the opportunity to bring any of those books back into print if it weren’t for my publishing partner and friend, Harry Kirchner. We have to do everything we can to preserve the cultural legacy of great writing across the globe.