We talk to M Durand – whose short stories appeared in issue forty-five of Neon – about visions of the devil, creativity across different mediums, and what makes horror horrifying.
One of your stories in issue forty-five of Neon revolves around the devil appearing in various forms in five different vignettes. What inspired this story?
It was really random: a long time ago I saw some obscure music video late at night that was all home-movie footage of people goofing around wearing weird costumes, and one of them had a red cape and hood with devil horns. The imagery itself wasn’t scary, but something about the combination of devil imagery and this intimate, totally uncinematic presentation – just filming with a cheap handheld camera in someone’s backyard or wherever it was – stuck with me afterward. It got me thinking about how it would feel to see someone in a full devil costume and makeup filmed in the same way, casually and in everyday settings, but with the understanding that everyone who saw him knew he really was the Devil. So for a long time I imagined it as some kind of video project.
I never did anything with that idea, but now and then it would re-enter my mind, and at some point I started wondering if it could work as a series of very short, unrelated stories (I came up with the title at least a year before any of the stories). And it turned out to be a fun premise to work with. I’d like to expand on it at some point, maybe add a few more stories to the set.
Did you draw much from research into the devil in folklore and legend?
Not at all. I wanted the Devil in those stories to be whatever pops into the reader’s mind when they hear “The Devil”; that’s why I didn’t describe him, and why I had every character who sees him immediately recognize him as the real thing. Deliberate references to specific myths or stories might have worked against that. Really I just started writing a bunch of scenarios knowing that he would enter each of them at some point, then tried to go with whatever felt right and not think about it too much. So it would be interesting if there turned out to be some cultural echoes that I wasn’t aware of.
I enjoyed the dream-like nature of your story “I Am Speaking”. It’s dark and strange, but at the same time not entirely impossible. Was it based on a dream – and do you tend to attribute much weight or meaning to dreams?
Well, I don’t attribute meaning in the sense of approaching dreams like puzzles that can be solved if you decode all of the symbols; to me they’re meaningful just in the effect they can have on me, the way music is meaningful. It’s not something I could put into words.
As for my story, it’s not based on a dream, but I’m glad you thought it could have been, because I wanted it to feel like one. Like the Devil stories I tried not to evaluate it while I was writing it, or even afterward; I changed the wording of certain things but story-wise I just let it spill out and didn’t question anything, because I thought imposing some conscious editorial agenda would probably kill the dreamlikeness. It can take me forever to revise even something as short as “I Am Speaking”, so it was a relief to write something that I knew in advance I wasn’t going to argue with.
Would you call what you write horror?
I’ve introduced these particular stories to friends as “weird little experiments”, so I guess that’s what I call them. I don’t mind if someone else wants to call them horror, but I wouldn’t. This might sound obnoxious, but I actually would be very happy if genres as a concept didn’t exist at all; I know they can be a useful shorthand, but I think they often discourage audiences – and artists – from exploring, and the boundaries between them seem so mushy and subjective anyway. If I ran a bookstore I’d just put all of the fiction together in one big section (and quickly go out of business).
What is it that makes a story uniquely scary or unsettling?
For me the first answer that comes to mind is “gaps”. Places where information is missing in such a way that your brain can’t help trying to fill it in, even though you can’t; all you know for sure is that none of the possibilities are reassuring. Maybe some character has the information, but you don’t. So then that gap comes to represent all of the awful possibilities at once. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever, worse than you could possibly imagine – you can’t rule that out! So now you’re just haunted by this question. I mean, obviously I wouldn’t want to read a story that was just one “It was too horrible to describe!” after another; that would have no effect at all. But if you can hint at something enough to really draw me in, then raise an awful question at the right time, in the right way, and just let it hang there…
How would you like readers to feel after they’ve finished reading the two stories which appear in issue forty-five?
I just hope they don’t feel like I wasted their time!
You work in a lot of different mediums. Could you talk a bit about the different forms you work in (music, film, etc) and how they play into your writing?
Well, I’ve written more songs than stories, and with lyrics I get very particular about how the sounds flow together when sung; I’ll tinker with a line for months or throw it out completely if I can’t get every word to feel right. At the same time I try to keep the language as simple and precise as possible, because that’s what I respond to: a few carefully-chosen words tend to get a much stronger reaction out of me than a lot of dazzling wordplay (I’m not putting that kind of writing down, it’s just not my thing). And all that has definitely carried over to my fiction-writing: I want it to sound plain-but-musical. I might feel differently someday, but right now that’s what I aspire to.
I can’t really speak for my video work because I’ve done so little, though I want to do a lot more; what I’ve mostly been doing lately is drawing, which has felt great. I was self-conscious about my drawing style for a long time, because it didn’t live up to some vague set of “real artist” standards I apparently expected to be judged by; I thought I was seen as a dabbler who couldn’t be taken seriously, so that was how I saw myself. I’ve only recently admitted that I really like the way I draw, and that I want to embrace my style as much as possible and see where I can take it. And that’s been very freeing, which I think has helped me feel freer as a writer as well: some of the tendencies that I used to see as “wrong” or “unprofessional” in my writing have persisted not because I’m too lazy to correct them but because I like them, and it took me forever to own up to that. So now instead of battling my idiosyncracies and ironing out “flaws” I don’t actually see as flaws I’m trying to really lean into them and own them. And I’m finding that it makes the work more satisfying, which means I’m working more, which hopefully means the work is evolving.
Publishing is, in a sense, a collaborative effort. As such I’m intrigued by collaborative creation. You mention in your biography that you’re always looking for collaborators. What, in your opinion, is the secret to a successful creative collaboration?
The only collaborations that have ever gone well for me have been more like games than projects: low stakes, small time commitment, no expectations, just the hope that we might amuse ourselves. Anything more ambitious has tended to fizzle out quickly. I’m not sure how other folks make it work on a larger scale, but for me I think it’d have to involve finding ways to hang onto that this-is-a-game mindset, looking for satisfaction in the moment-to-moment process above all else. If you fixate on outcomes it can be easy to get resentful or impatient when the process isn’t working equally well for everyone: “Well, I’m satisfied with this way of working, so why can’t you just like what I like and help me finish this?” Whereas if you were playing a game, and you could see that your friends weren’t enjoying it, you wouldn’t force them to keep playing just for the sake of completing the game; you’d find a different game, or at least change the rules. Otherwise why would anyone play with you?
M Durand lives in Western Massachusetts and is a musician, artist, and/or writer whenever time permits. He plans to add “filmmaker” to that list at some point. As Kaivaus he self-released his first album, June Plus, in 2016; his second album is almost finished, he hopes. He is @foggy_fossil on Instagram. He is always looking for collaborators.