We’re celebrating the launch of our Gothics issue by finding out what it is about the Gothic that appeals to our authors, and what inspired their Issue 17 stories.
Lackington’s: You describe “Verwelktag” as a modern Schauerroman—the German term for Gothic fiction, literally meaning “shudder story.” Did you have any particular examples in mind as prototypes as you were writing your story, and do you have any personal affinity for that German tradition?
ST: I’ve got to confess, I’m not as familiar with the German tradition as I am with the English. We moved out to Munich in August 2017. When I saw the call for submissions I wanted to write a different take on the Gothic story. I researched the themes of the Schauerroman, and found that they involved secret societies, necromancy, and often had a more pessimistic feel than stories of the British tradition. That appealed! I grew up reading Dennis Wheatley for my sins, so that idea of secret societies particularly was definitely on my radar. I didn’t want to necessarily replicate any existing work that fell within the German Gothic tradition, but use those broad themes of the Schauerroman to see what I could come up with.
Lackington’s: Flowers play a big role in the life of the German villagers in “Verwelktag.” What is it about plants and flowers that inspired you to make them the focus of a Gothic story?
ST: Where we live is right on the edge of Munich and there are many areas of Selbst Pflücken Blumen (self-pick flowers). These are patches of gladioli, tulips, and sunflowers with an honesty box and a couple of knives. For a small charge you can cut yourself some fresh flowers to take home. As we don’t have a garden we take advantage of them on a regular basis. While they are undoubtedly beautiful, there is something unsettling about them too. Maybe it is the way they echo roadside shrines, or the presence of the knives. There’s also, for me, a connection between flowers and gardens, and the Selbst Pflücken Blumen are like a tended flower garden that no one tends. The gardener is a ghostly presence. I’ve wanted to write a story about them for a while, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
There are two literary influences on the foliage aspect of the story. When I was a child there was a short-lived horror comic for kids called Scream. Like 2000 AD, Battle Picture Weekly, and Eagle, Scream was an anthology comic of that type that British comic companies do so well. A one-page short called “Green Fingers” has stayed with me for a long time. A boy finds a meteorite and touches it (silly boy!). Rather than scorching his fingers off, everything he touches turns to plant life. Fridges, kitchen cupboards, and food sprout branches and green shoots. His mum comes home and, distressed, the boy runs to give her a hug. It doesn’t end well.
More recently I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, which is a stunning exploration of society and nature, and gave me a lot to think about regarding that interface.
Lackington’s: The setting of “Verwelktag” is modern, but it’s filled with references to older times: the old castle, the old song, the old holiday of the title. Why did you create the juxtaposition of modern life and ancient features?
ST: The castle is based on a real place on the banks of Starnberger See in Bavaria called Schloss Possenhofen. It’s famous for being the home of the Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) of the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach, but was converted into apartments in the 1980s. As a wider idea, I’m fascinated by traces of the past in the current landscape, whether that’s the physical landscape or the social landscape. I think one of the privileges I have is to be able to cherry-pick the best of the past and the present. I can use the internet to research, but use an eighty-year-old straight razor to have a very good shave. I can take advantage of the vast variety of food available (I still remember when croissants were a new thing in England in the 80s), yet I can wear jeans made to a seventy-year-old pattern because they are more hard-wearing.
However, I think there is a tension between the past and the present. Since 2014 I’ve been working with Imove and Becky Cherriman on a project called Haunt. Haunt was inspired by my own experiences after getting made homeless when I was 16. I spent three years either with no fixed abode or living in bedsits. The thing with Harrogate, the town where I grew up, is that it is a very rich town, and has a very opulent past as a spa town. Many of the bedsits are in large townhouses connected with this past. This means that people experiencing homelessness and vulnerable housing are haunted by the physical traces of a past in the places they occupy, and are not part of. These experiences informed the way I approached “Verwelktag.”
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t read and work the way that readers have come to expect?
ST: Storytelling is very effective at disrupting people’s perspectives and introducing new ways of seeing the world. Returning to Haunt for the moment, one of the main aims was to disrupt people’s perception of Harrogate as a rich town. We did this in several ways, both in terms of the project itself, but also during the final performances. Haunt was a walking tour that started as a ghost walk before the more contemporary stories came in. In some cases this was a direct physical disruption; for example, at one point the audience are walking down the street watching an actor playing a ghost, when a second actor stumbles across their path while catching bags of possessions thrown from a window. This disruption had a very visceral impact on the audience and helped them attune to the stories we wanted to tell.
In the same way, using a conventional framework such as the Gothic story you can disrupt people’s perception of groups and people by using the rules to introduce different narratives they may not have encountered.
Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Aurealis, Not One of Us, Cabinet des Feés, and Pantheon Magazine. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year 6. From 2014 he worked with Becky Cherriman and Imove on Haunt, the Saboteur Award-shortlisted project about Harrogate’s haunting presence in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the town. He likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails.