Fae Visions of the Mediterranean is an anthology of horrors and wonders of the sea, edited by Valeria Vitale and released this month by Futurefire.net Publishing. The 24 stories and poems, in multiple genres and languages, include a reprint of Rhys Hughes’s “The Minotaur in Pamplona”—one of the most poignant of his many many absurdist stories. We asked Rhys a few questions about his work.
Rhys Hughes has been a published author for 25 years. His most recent book is a collection of stories called Mirrors in the Deluge and his next book will be another collection of stories, Brutal Pantomimes. He plans to write exactly 1000 short stories in his lifetime.
TFF: “The Minotaur in Pamplona” takes liberties with its source material, as is your wont, but somehow manages to stay truer to the tragic spirit of the Minotaur than many classical retellings. Where did the story come from?
Rhys Hughes: I wrote it in a hotel room one rainy day in Toledo, Spain. It was my first visit to that city and the weather had been good but suddenly the skies opened and the rain came down in a torrent. I retreated to my very small room in my very cheap hotel and lacking anything else to do I just starting writing a new story. I wrote it in one session, which is something I often do with these very short tales. I have no idea where the story came from. Stories appear in my mind all the time and I guess they come from many different sources. I had flirted with the idea of going to the Pamplona encierro later that month, but my ethical good sense overruled me. As for the figure of the Minotaur, I have always been intrigued by the ancient myths. It was the Borges story ‘The House of Asterion’ that first alerted me to the poignant potentials of the character and situation of the Minotaur. I hadn’t really been aware of the tragic elements before that, to be honest. I just thought of him as a monster in a maze. When the rain stopped I went back out and wandered through the labyrinthine streets. The following day I left Toledo and set off on the longest single day hike I have undertaken, into the mountains. Not that this has anything to do with your question!
What is your connection with the Mediterranean Sea and region?
The Mediterranean is the cradle of European civilisation. Or at least the nursery room of the mainstream culture we now have on this particular continent. I have spent a lot of time wandering the various shores of this almost fully enclosed ellipse of water. We now think of the sea as forming a clear divide between two radically different worlds, Europe and Africa, but it wasn’t always perceived that way. Once those two worlds were the same world culturally. These days the southern side is less familiar to most travellers than the northern, which is a shame. I especially like the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, which has a beauty and mystery and is still relatively undeveloped. I hiked from Melilla to El Hoceima and during the journey I did feel I might have been living in an earlier age. I saw few intrusions of the modern world on the way. Until recently this was a dangerous region and it still has that reputation, but it is safe enough. Ajdir was the capital of the Rif Republic under Abd el-Krim, whose guerrilla tactics hugely influenced Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. Later it became notorious as a lawless place where kif dealers robbed travellers on principle. I was warned against going there. The most dramatic thing that happened was that a stranger offered me apricots. There are the islands of the Mediterranean too, of course, suspended at a midpoint between the two shores. Sardinia is one of my favourite places in the world. I love the Greek islands. Too many places to mention really.
Your stories sometimes veer between slapstick comedy and blood-chilling horror (the best masterfully combine both). What is it about these apparently antithetical genres that go so well together?
I don’t really write horror, certainly not now, and even the few horror elements that might appear in a story aren’t true horror. I certainly have no desire to scare people. I am more interested in playing games with ideas. I don’t know if horror and comedy go well together. In many ways, I think that horror is comedy, even horror that doesn’t try to be comedy, that doesn’t want to be comedy. Horror is essentially comedy, even though it might not be funny comedy, on the contrary it can be a profoundly unfunny comedy, and yet comedy nonetheless. What I mean is that some horror, the supernatural variety at least, is deeply absurd by definition. The idea of a werewolf, for example. We choose to regard it as a serious horror standard, or else we have been conditioned to do so. Now let’s imagine a were-panda or a were-starfish. These are fundamentally no different in concept from the werewolf. The transformational formulae are the same. Yet we regard them as comic creations rather than horror creations. It can be argued that the wolf is more dangerous, but that isn’t necessarily so. Wolves rarely attack people, a lone wolf almost never. A panda, however, could crush a man if he fell on him. A starfish could poke a man in the eyes, causing him to crash his hovercraft. It’s all equally absurd, equally comical, but we make arbitrary distinctions between the werewolf and the others. The werewolf doesn’t feel absurd, even though it is; and in some ways that makes it more absurd than the panda and starfish. Science fiction is the same. A space giraffe that stands on one planet but has a neck so long that it stretches through outer space and bends down through the atmosphere of another planet so it can browse alien foliage is an absurd, comical creation. But the idea of human astronauts travelling faster than the speed of light between the solar systems of an intergalactic empire in hollow spaceships is just as absurd, no less an impossibility, and yet we tend to accept it as a plausible, even aspirational, scenario. Both are fairy tales really. Both are absurdities. It’s just that we have developed a prejudice against certain types of absurdity and we tolerate others. There is no logic behind it. So I am not sure that I ever consciously blend antithetical elements. I just write. My main urge and aim is to get the ideas that appear in my head down onto the page and to fix them in stories so they can’t come back to clutter up my mind.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I started writing from a very early age, but I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t think of my efforts as being proper short stories, even though one or two were. I remember when I was about ten years old writing a story about a man who jumps off a cliff in order to kill himself, but he only knocks himself out when he hits the sea and is washed ashore. When he awakes he assumes he is dead and has become a ghost, so he goes off to haunt people and play tricks on them. He assumes that because he is a ghost he is invisible and immune to retaliation. But of course he isn’t. His tricks get more elaborate and disruptive. Eventually he annoys so many people that they all chase him and in order to escape he jumps off the same cliff he first jumped off, assuming he can fly or at least that the impact won’t hurt him. But this time the tide is out and he dies for real. I guess I can say this was my first proper story. I lost it, as I lost all my early work, but I kept the idea in my head and rewrote it years later. It’s called ‘Learning to Fall’ and can be found in my book Tallest Stories, published in 2013. That book is one of my favourites of all the books I have written. It features sixty stories that are linked in various ways and includes other stories that I originally wrote when I was very young but lost and rewrote years later.
If you wrote your 1000th story today, would you really stop?
I am often asked this question. People simply don’t believe that I will stop, but I do think that I will. When I have got all the fiction out of my system I intend to concentrate on non-fiction. I would like to become an essayist. I really can see myself just writing non-fiction. The transition has started slowly already. I have begun reading more non-fiction than fiction. But it will be a long time before I get to my 1000th story. I have been working on this sequence for the past 26 years and when I started writing it, I didn’t even know it was a linked sequence. That happened later, organically, when characters from previous stories started appearing in later stories. They were uninvited at first, but now I welcome them with open arms. I haven’t yet decided if my novels will form part of the big sequence or not. Maybe they won’t, which means that more room will open up in the sequence that has to be filled with new stories. And even if they do, the remaining stories that I write might be very long ones or made up of multiple parts, each of which is a separate story. So there’s a long way to go yet. And when I do finally finish my 1000th tale, if I ever get that far, I guess I will go back to the beginning and start rewriting the sequence from the beginning. I regard the entire cycle as just one big fictional ‘object’ and finishing it will really be only finishing the first draft. I will need to polish and refine it, tighten it, make it better. This is assuming that I live long enough to do all this, or that I still have the desire to do it. Anything can happen. But I know for sure that I don’t want to just keep writing fiction without limit into my old age. That seems too much like fading away, like being an echo that gets fainter and fainter. I want there to be a deliberate and definite final line.
If you had to spend one month on a small, desert island, what books would you want to have with you?
Books on survival, of course, but that’s too obvious an answer. Am I limited in how many books I am allowed? Robinson Crusoe seems the perfect choice. I could provide you with a list of my favourite novels, if you like. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis; Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian; Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino; Life: A User's Manual by George Perec; The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth; All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani; At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien; Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavić. Some collections of short stories would be nice too. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem; the various collections of Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Alasdair Gray, Brian Aldiss. But wouldn’t it be a little depressing just reading work I have already read? Maybe I should go for authors I am not very familiar with yet. I am constantly discovering writers who enthral me. This year, for example, I started reading R.K. Narayan for the first time, and now I plan to work my way through all his books. A couple of years ago I first started reading Ismail Kadare and he has become one of my favourite writers, so even though I discovered most of my favourite writers in my youth, I am still learning all the time what wondrous talent is out there.
What is your favourite place to write?
I can write almost anywhere and have done, but this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the comforts of a soft armchair. I have a favourite chair that I use. When I wrote just using a pen I would sprawl on the floor. Then I progressed to using a typewriter while perched on a stool, then a word processor and a computer on a chair, my posture improving each time. So I guess I was like one of those old drawings showing the supposed ascent of man, from crouched monkey to fully erect homo sapiens, but not quite. Now I will often sprawl in my armchair with the keyboard on my lap. Real laptops don’t appeal to me because the action of the keys doesn’t feel right. I always plug in an old chunky keyboard. I want to bang the keys like a demented pianist banging a piano. Having said that, I am a four fingered typist. And I still occasionally write using pen and paper. I might have several stories in progress on the computer and several scribbled on paper as well. Ten years ago I wrote a novella while hiking through the Alpujarras mountains in Spain. I didn’t have a tent, just a sleeping bag, so I wrote using rocks as tables. I did try to write once during a storm at sea, but that didn’t work very well. I am toying with the idea of using voice recognition software so I can dictate my stories into the computer, but I know that the part of the brain that controls the writing of words is different to that which controls speaking, so this might take some retraining. Worth a try anyway, I think.
What are you writing next (as if it could be any one thing!)?
I am always working on more than one project at the same time. I don’t know how this situation came about. There must have been a point when I worked on one project at a time, but I don’t remember. At the moment I have lots of works in progress and some of them have been in progress for years, even decades. So I could say that these are the things I am writing ‘next’ although it’s not clear if they will be finished anytime soon. There is my novel The Clown of the New Eternities, which I started in 1994, and which will be my most substantial work if I manage to complete it. There are other novels too, Unevensong, which is a more traditional fantasy epic; Wuthering Depths, a comedy about submarines; Fists of Fleece, a western with a Welsh slant; Djinn Septic, about a crew of sailors who travel in a clot-shaped ship to the Heart of Darkness in order to induce a heart attack and kill darkness, allowing light to rule the world; Comfy Rascals, a showcase of experimental chapters all done in a different style governed by mathematics; Down Cerberus!, which constitutes the reminiscences of the triple-headed mythical hound that guards Hades. The short stories will hopefully keep coming too. I am in the process of putting together a collection of my ‘fantastika romantique’ tales called Salty Kiss Island. I am planning other collections called The Big Dwarf Shortage, Dribble as I Dawdle, Corybantic Fulgors; a collection of strange detective stories called The Mischief Maker; many others. As well as the fantasy stuff, I like to write the occasional ‘realistic’ story without any fantasy, and I have just begun a new linked series based on the lives of four bohemian types who live in the same house. My non-fantasy work has hardly ever been published, but I persist. I have no choice but to get the ideas in my head down on paper and there are lots of these ideas all the time. I just don’t think it’s very realistic of me to expect to be only working on a single project. Maybe my working life would be easier if I did, but that’s not my character. I work hard but I am disorganised too in many ways, and yet maybe from this disorganisation comes everything I do that is different from what others do. Everyone is different, of course, but the reasons for our differences maybe shouldn’t be delved into too deeply.
Rhys Hughes’s “The Minotaur in Pamplona” can be found in Fae Visions of the Mediterranean.