Interview with the Hosts of Elder Sign
Elder Signs is billed as college-level conversations about the masters of horror literature from H.P. Lovecraft to Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. But, it’s much more than that…
Where are you guys from? What is your background?
Glenn: I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and stayed there until I was an adult, but since then I’ve moved around a lot for school, the military, and scholarly research. And I suppose in some sense that sentence about sums up my background as well, though the mundane experiences of childhood and adolescence have been profoundly important to me, from building Legos to reading incessantly to playing D&D in neighborhood basements. Those are the experiences that led to my career with the military and my career now as a history professor—both of which show up a lot in my stories and inform my approach to talking about literature on our podcasts.
Brandon: I grew up in a small town about an hour north of Philadelphia. I joined the Army while I was in high school. I was sold on the G.I. Bill benefits. After I left the Army, I enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia and double majored in English and Philosophy. I stayed in Philly for about a decade, all told, working in Market Research and also in a Real Estate startup. But I’ve always tried to keep at least one toe in the water of philosophy and criticism. Now I’m in Lake County, Illinois.
What inspired you to be writers?
Brandon: For me, it was discovering the lost generation and modernist writers in high school. I loved the focus on the use of poetic techniques that could often be found in their writing and I’m still a sucker for a strong stream of consciousness writing style. I also loved the novels of C.S. Lewis. His use of both poetry and mythology really stood out to me and he, more than anyone, was my gateway into genre fiction. All of that together somehow made me think that I could pull off being a writer as well and so I’ve continually tried to work on the craft throughout the years between being in high school and now. I did my senior capstone course in college on creative writing in poetry, for instance.
Glenn: I’ve been actively writing something for as long as I can remember. As kids, my best friend and I invented a fantasy world and wrote stories in it, then as an adolescent a lot of that creative energy was directed toward role-playing games, and then later in life I wrote mostly for scholarship. But I got started writing fiction in a half-serious way when Brandon and I and another friend decided to create a shared universe with an eye toward developing a role-playing game. We wanted to create a game in which the mechanics served the types of stories we wanted to play, and we thought that the best way to figure out what those stories were and to develop a setting was to start writing. Since then I’ve written close to five-hundred-thousand words in that setting, and the project is still in the works—though it will be a long time before anyone sees the role-playing game.
What was the first weird story you guys read?
Glenn: I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, so the answer is probably Bunnicula—a book I’m very excited to share with my son when he’s old enough. But in terms of the types of stories we cover on Elder Sign, it was Edgar Allan Poe. I discovered a complete collection of Poe’s stories in seventh grade and read the whole thing in a weekend. Poe’s stories took over my imagination for years, though I also read Dracula, Frankenstein, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in junior high, which established my tastes for decades and also led to an adolescence well spent in Ravenloft and the World of Darkness.
Brandon: I can clearly remember being enthralled by the Dean Koontz novels Ticktock and Cold Fire, which I read sometime between 7th and 9th grade. I continued to read Dean Koontz through high school and beyond but around the age of 19, I had a roommate that had a Lovecraft collection containing “The Rats in the Walls.” That story really frightened me at the time and cemented my love of the weird and horror.
What performer writers inspires you the most?
Glenn: Gene Wolfe. For one, he didn’t start writing until he was middle-aged and then wrote some of the most important works of speculative fiction while working a job to support his large family. His discipline of writing every morning between 5 AM and breakfast is a work ethic that should inspire us all. I’m also constantly amazed at the quality and quantity of Neil Gaiman’s early work. He was on a deadline to get the Sandman out every month and still found time to crank out phenomenal short stories. I guess, for me at this stage, it’s not the talent that inspires me, it’s the discipline.
Brandon: Apart from working on the discipline side of writing, you know, trying to get in some writing every day, what makes me feel like I have to write is seeing a great film. I often feel inspired when I hear filmmakers talk about their work with writers, or writing a film themselves.
What was the inspiration for your podcasts?
Our friendship is founded on talking about stories, so it was probably inevitable that we would decide that other people might want to hear those conversations. But the specific impetus for starting The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast and Elder Sign: A Weird Fiction Podcast was that we wanted to be reading work that would help us become better writers. So we picked a master of the craft to really study from beginning to end and then also decided to do a show focused on the genre that we largely write in. The approach has been fruitful and also a lot of fun.
Do you think your environment, where you live, has an effect on type of art you create?
Glenn: Absolutely. Our local cultures and environments profoundly affect everything about us, of course, but I think also that the social and institutional contexts of our lives are important, too. I think a lot about how much more art we would have—and how much more diverse it would be—if Americans weren’t beholden to jobs for healthcare, for example.
Brandon: I think being attentive to the environment where I live and have lived helps to deepen the subjective experience of the characters in the story. It helps to give the characters the sense that they know what it’s like to be in the environment they are in. I think paying attention to your environment, how you are situated in it and how people who aren’t as comfortable in it are responding to it, strengthens the sense of place that is essential to the feel of a strong setting.
What other areas of art are you involved in?
Glenn: I’m really lucky to live a life surrounded by art. Writing is the only art that I pursue, but of course I get to read stories constantly for the various podcasts on the network. On top of that I get to spend most of the daylight hours with my toddler, who is seriously into music and books. We spend an hour every day just reading with each other and then another hour just quietly listening to music and it’s a life I’m going to miss when he starts school.
Brandon: Well, I’m terrible at creating anything in a visual medium. I play the guitar poorly from time to time and have enjoyed tooling around with midi controllers in the past. But right now I’ve got time for the podcast and a little writing and that’s about it.
What do you think the popular culture will be like in ten years?
Glenn: Oh, wow. I’m a historian for my day job, and historians are the worst people to ask to predict the future. But there do seem to be two contrary trends in the production of culture here in the 2020s. One is the reliance on franchises and series—and the amalgamation of those intellectual properties in the hands of a few businesses. This seems to have largely killed movies as I knew them and is starting to pollute television as well, and most the Hugo and Nebula winners for the last ten years have been installments in ongoing series. On the other hand, the Internet has provided creators with the ability to reach a niche audience of people around the world, which lets more of us be creators. That’s a trend that I really like and wish we had more of—and Star Trek assures me that future is coming.
Brandon: I’m not sure what the next big trend will be in the coming decade. I don’t think CGI is going away, which I suspect means that films with practical effects will make a comeback at some point. I think this will take the form of the big budget comedy. I don’t know, maybe some kind of detective/noir cinematic universe will come into being. Horror will continue to do well.
What’s the strangest story you’ve ever read?
Brandon: I read Michael Cisco’s The Divinity Student not too long ago and that one stuck with me both for the surreal world it takes place in and the precise, yet poetic prose that Cisco uses to describe the world and the job of the titular character. I’m not sure that I’ve come across a stranger book than that.
Glenn: The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is pretty strange. It’s two distinct narratives, with one essentially being the exact plot of Home Alone except that instead of Joe Pesci it’s pig-people and the other being some kind of astral projection through outer space. There’s also some time travel and the whole thing has a frame story around it. I enjoyed the heck out of it, but it’s hard to imagine publishing anything like that today. And of course it was a commercial failure in 1908, too, even though it’s been massively significant in the development of weird fiction.
What projects are you working on now?
Glenn: We’re covering a lot of great stories on the network right now. As soon as I send this off, I’ll get to work outlining an episode on Dune that I’m very excited about. But we’re also going to be covering several stories in the back half of “The King in Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers in rapid succession and we’re finishing up Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece novel Peace. All of that is a lot of work that keeps me very busy, but I am also writing a novella featuring my occult detective Paul Henslowe to round out a collection of stories that hopefully will hit bookshelves before the end of 2023.
Brandon: Fingers crossed, I’ll be examining and reviewing John Carpenter’s movies that were released in theaters for Claytemple Media in order to launch a film show for the network. I’m really focused on trying to get some writing done every day. What I write varies from day to day but lately I’ve been switching between working on a cursed object story and a more realist piece.