Facilitator of Connections: Editing MANTID Magazine

by Alex Houstoun

As has been covered in previous issues of this journal (see Ashley Dioses in Dead Reckonings #21! -Ed.) we, readers and purveyors of all things weird literary, have recently been blessed with a bountiful array of independent magazines, journals, zines, and other printed matter devoted to weird and unconventional literature.

To be added to that ever-growing group is MANTID, “a literary publication celebrating women writers and media creators from various background.” MANTID’s mission appears to distinguish it from many of its contemporaries because of its explicitly stated mission to “serve as a platform for marginalized groups in the arts (women, LGBTQA, women of color, and people with disabilities/differently-abled)” and to “foster a diverse creative community and to bring unique, fiercely human voices to the forefront of modern weird storytelling.”

Stuck by the intensity of the purpose behind MANTID, I reached out via email to Farah Rose Smith, the editor and publisher of MANTID, to discuss the publication and her process in compiling issues.

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AH: Recognizing that this is an incredibly open-ended and somewhat frustrating way to start, I hope you might be able to explain and elaborate on MANTID and the philosophy behind it. You write on the MANTID Facebook page that the “ultimate goal” of MANTID is to “foster a diverse creative community and to bring unique, fiercely human voices to the forefront of modern weird storytelling” and that MANTID serves as a “platform for marginalized groups in the arts” with a particular attention to genre fiction. Why this particular area of art — in your words “weird fiction, horror, dark fantasy, magic realism, and dark science fiction” — and why now?

FRS: The ideological undercurrent to the project in the beginning was essentially that there are stories by unusual, under-appreciated, and under-promoted voices that deserve a platform, because they are not getting through via the normal storytelling or publishing avenues at the levels which they should. One problem that I can verify is that diverse writers do not submit enough, and sadly this stems from quite valid points and fears about exclusion. MANTID was never meant to be an isolated publication where diverse writers could go to, but rather, a platform for them to be heard among other known voices, and then gain interest from other places (a goal which I can thankfully say has come true). I was especially attracted to the idea that the magazine would also appeal to diverse readers.

This all began with my personal frustrations being a genre/art filmmaker in a very commercial school in Boston, at the same time that I was beginning to take part in the Lovecraft community events in Providence, RI. I became aware of vast canyons of perspective and interpretation that seemed to be more based on laziness and indifference than ideological ferocity (though I encountered that far more times than I would have liked to). This said to me that mere exposure to different kinds of art, culture, and storytelling could nudge people towards inclusion and innovation. While some people view this as an abandonment of past literary giants, or some kind of flag-waving political statement, I maintain my view on it as a natural, warm, respectable progression.

Now is the time because it has never not been the time. There may be greater courage to push boundaries towards inclusion and diversity because people are at points of frustration that cut so deeply that they must act, but there has never been a bad time for the undervalued to exist. As for the genre specifications, there are two answers, the less thoughtful of which being only that my personal fiction preferences leaned towards these genres, and my finding of sanctuary within them led me to believe that other oppressed groups had as well. The other reason is that the fantastical and weird have long been arenas of exploration for and of oppression, struggle, and fear. These themes are not special to one kind of person. However, the intricacies, roots, variations on fear and horror vary profoundly from person to person. Why not hear a different take on such things?

AH: Your phrasing that the genesis of MANTID began with your frustrations towards the laziness and indifference of some of the perspectives you were encountering coupled with this belief that “exposure to different kinds of art” can nudge people towards “inclusion and innovation” reads to me as if part of your intention with MANTID is to better those that originally vexed you. By “better” I mean to nudge them and make them more innovative. Is that a fair analysis? Did you have an audience in mind with MANTID or was the focus more so providing a platform for those who you felt were not receiving their due?

FRS: “Better” is a word I try to avoid at all times, though the idea of educating an audience or society, and creators themselves by opening them up to different perspectives is appealing (and necessary for cultural growth). But hoping for something is far different than harboring a direct intention. I planned the collections with hope for meaningful impact, hope being the operative word. I know all too well how this particular medium tends to flounder with limited reach and criticism. Having said that, some people can get all the exposure in the world and still hold only few things dear, or have particular tastes, and that is entirely valid! It was the malice in so many against different writers and topics that I found disheartening. The idea of dismissing that which has not been read, seen, heard, that seemed like a reality that could be at least discussed with direct engagement between disparate creators and readers. There is an ongoing conversation in weird fiction about the validity of new weird and the difficult topics of the authorial character of the long-dead. I am of the belief that you can observe and learn prior texts, enjoy them or not, have reasonable perspectives on creators, and build off of or away from them healthily, if that is the desire.

I did have hope that perhaps young horror readers, particularly younger (16+, or of reasonable maturity for the content) readers of all genders /diverse groups, would read the series, but getting the publication into arenas where they are accessible has been a challenge. This is why I would ask anyone who does enjoy the series and stories within request that their local library get a copy for their shelves. I wanted women to see that women are out there writing, and pushing for inclusion. Some will say the idea of a women-only publication is a problem in that regard, and that is a discussion that could go in circles forever depending on perspective, logic foundations, circumstances, etc. I have switched between perspectives as well over the years, but ultimately I found it to be a healthier approach to be out there actively creating communities for women to develop in and out of. The platform is meant to be a positive stepping stone for storytellers, period.

AH: In my reading, what you are describing here sounds like the process of “bettering” one’s self: “I am of the belief that you can observe and learn prior texts, enjoy them or not, have reasonable perspectives on creators, and build off of or away from them healthily, if that is the desire.​” This process of “healthily” building reads as a means of betterment especially given that you are grounding it in a relation to observed “prior texts.”

Would you be willing to elaborate on your reasons for wanting to avoid the word “better” in this context? Or is not merely in this context?

FRS: My problem with the word is a universal one that bleeds into this arena of observation, I believe. Your assessment is correct, but there is a deeper problem with the idea of misinterpreting personal progression as it relates to the outside world, and it is these connotations that I often find demeaning and toxic to certain groups. So it is, perhaps, the emphasis on the word that I prefer to avoid. I may be better within myself for having read this or that, having learned something, but am I better than someone else, or hold more worth? No, and that is getting into dangerous territory. Those kind of vanity-laced motivations are of little value. Though this does touch upon the egoism of fandom culture within literature. An acquaintance can only read one book a year due to severe dyslexia, but their keen intellect, decency, and passion for literature is no less than a friend who reads over a hundred books a year. Is “better” a valuable term to use in observation there? There may be gaps in knowledge, but they may have been obtained elsewhere, by other means. Because there are people who don’t or can’t read everything under the sun for reasons that don’t involve stinginess and indifference, I don’t use the word better. It becomes a philosophical problem for me. But this gets me away from the context of the anthology, which was not designed to be representative of my personal philosophy. I try to remove myself from the conversation as much as possible because it is about the authors and their stories. This becomes a task due to aspersions people choose to cast for often unclear reasons that I inevitably must combat. People turn their nose up at women writing weird and horror fiction, and that is the problem. Perhaps that kind of opposition cannot, in fact, be altered with exposure. But is it worth a shot? Absolutely.

AH: My own use of “better” in this conversation was meant as personal — a personal betterment, not a comparison, or competition, between two people per the example of your friend. In that regard, I think we are speaking to a similar thing albeit with different language.

Returning to the original topic of our conversation, and apologies for the digression, the way you have described your role as the editor of MANTID appears to be paradoxical in a way I find interesting: you are the editor, you curate and create each issues, you are the editor, the publisher, and yet you write that it is not representative of you or your philosophy. I think this highlights a great challenge facing editors in general, that is, you are invisible in a sense but also responsible for what is ultimately presented to the readers. Can you talk about the process of putting together the first three issues?

FRS: No need for an apology! Language can be tricky and I try to be careful with it, or at least as sensible as possible.

I try to distance myself from being the type of editor who dictates and creates a very narrow window for material based on personal preferences. If it were a publication based on my tastes alone, it would have been archaic and decadent, and not served the purpose that it is meant to serve. That is not to say it is completely devoid of bias because nothing ever can be, but it was more important for me to speak to unconventional or ignored audiences. Having said that, that creates another difficulty because as a person of a particular identity, I don’t necessarily know what different people want to read. I make the best calls that I can, and it is a learning process for me as well. Editing is tricky business, and I have always felt a distaste for certain strains of egoism that can seep into it. I rather think of myself as a facilitator of connections and material.

The first issue was put together as more of a traditional magazine with interviews, articles, photography, and fiction. It is ultimately a challenge to just “decide” to start a zine or anthology from the ground floor because one has to handle the pressure of both learning and doing at the same time. My initial team started this venture with what I can only refer to as subterranean influence in the literary world (none!). At that time I was still at Emerson College, and several of my classmates were a part of the overall production process of that issue. Also, at that time, we were still accepting submissions from all genders. It wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, but it was a pivotal stepping stone towards what the publication has become (and is still becoming). We did not receive the warmest welcome in the world, but it gained enough of an audience for a second issue to come about. That issue only contained fiction and photography/”art”, and by that time my team had dropped away to full-time jobs and didn’t have time to contribute to pulling it together. It was the first to have stories by women and nonbinary people only. The issue received greater attention, more criticism, and again, the possibility of a third seemed to be on the horizon. That one took much longer to create.

The third came about after a considerable amount of time had passed, including time that I spent getting to know other editors and how certain kinds of publications are put together. The decision was made to cut MANTID down to a traditional (albeit small) anthology, which seems to have been a popular and well-supported decision. The decision to make it a women-only anthology, however, has brought about (childish, tedious) controversy.

AH: You’ve touched on it a bit, but I am hoping you might be able to elaborate further on how your editing process has shifted as you’ve learned more and the constant battle of creating something for yourself or self-reflective and something for an unknown. I like this idea of you, or an editor in general, acting as a “facilitator of connections” but it also makes me wonder: is the reader supposed to be aware of the editor serving that role or is it supposed to be something subtle and unobserved?

FRS: I think the approach to MANTID was self-reflective in that it reflected values I share with many as a reader of fiction, and being a colleague of writers. It was best for me to tune myself in to the needs of contributors (to the best of my ability, which is often flawed) and tune myself out to a degree. I soon realized that my personal tastes were not going to cut it entirely for a progressive collection, and the goal was for the publication to continue. It required coordination and consideration, and an enormous amount of help from friends and colleagues who weighed in thoughtfully. Frankly, none of it would have happened without the enormous support I received from the weird fiction community (namely Sam Gafford, Gwendolyn Kiste, and Anya Martin, who have been fiercely supportive since the first issue). Certain types of editorial approaches had to be avoided, namely it felt as though it would have been inappropriate to want to suggest content changes or significant narrative overhauls. Coming from a position of trusting storytellers, the idea that accumulating or aspiring towards some kind of despotic authority as an editor seemed counterintuitive (and distasteful).

While there is and should be a certain amount of teamwork between editor and writer, my idea is that if the editor is doing their job correctly, they should not be thought of at all by the reader. I am likely in the minority there. The title has grown into something of a vanity position in some cases, which may be necessary because it provides publicity for sales purposes if editors are well known, or take well to the the social media/clout game in literature, but this has nothing to do with artistic or editorial integrity. I generally cringe when people ask me for interviews because, as a facilitator, I feel (in interviews unlike this one, where questions remain in safer, perhaps more casual territory that direct away from the purpose of the anthology), that I am doing a deep disservice to the contributing writers by putting myself in that position. In general, much like film editing, where a sloppy cut will take a viewer out of the experience, something that makes one aware of the editor’s presence is usually a negative thing.

AH: Perhaps it is my own sensitive ego as an editor, but I would like to push back against the last point you make because, while a sloppy cut might take the audience out of the experience and make them aware of an editor not doing their job properly, an excellent composition can make one really appreciate the subtle workings of an editor.

The third issue of MANTID has recently been released and, without putting yourself in an uncomfortable, cringing position, can you speak a little about this particular composition?

FRS: That’s fair. It wasn’t an attempt to undermine editors. I think that appreciation is merited, it should be acknowledged. Certainly, everyone wants to know if and that they are doing good work, and doing justice to a story on behalf of the writers. But the stories come first and problems arise when the appreciation becomes strangely overabundant for those who should be facilitating. I was more referring to the idea of the celebrity editor than suggesting that those subtleties are not to be commended. Though perhaps the inversion of the ego is its own negative manifestation that can be counter-productive. I can’t anticipate many sharing my opinion. I find more comfort in remaining as a shadow figure because it allows this particular platform to provide for other writers as intended. I wouldn’t expect this to be suitable for every publication, particularly in an atmosphere that relies on particular modes of promotion to get works sold. It seemed that the mission here called for an increased subtlety, which I initially thought would be more effective with a large production team, but that experiment struggled profoundly with the first issue.

Luckily, no discussion of the publication itself will make me cringe! The third volume is more uniform than the previous two, with some selections of science fiction and fantasy, but fewer deviations from weird and horror fiction. We were very excited to include stories from Gwendolyn Kiste, Brooke Warra, Carrie Laben, Nadia Bulkin, Victoria Dalpe, Kaia Hodo, Dodie Miller-Gould, and Kaia Hodo. Themes run the gamut from family and sisterhood to murder, isolation, persecution, and shame. The collection starts off on a redemptive note, but ends on an ominous one, which was (I believe) the most distinctive choice I made when pulling together this volume.

AH: Do you feel like the third volume being “more uniform” is a result of how the stories organically interact with each other or is it more reflective of MANTID coming into its own? Is it necessary that there be fewer deviations from the weird and horror genres or is that a happy coincidence in the case of this volume? How do you perceive this uniformity may reflect itself going forward?

FRS: If I’m being entirely honest, I find myself moderately contemplative about the fact that the collections never quite turn out as “weird” as I would like them to. But that is not an aspersion cast upon the collection or its authors. I am marvelously proud to be able to publish these works. There is an ongoing conversation about what it takes for a story to be considered “weird,” and that perhaps can change the perspective on the stories as a whole. I believe that all three volumes lean more towards traditional horror storytelling, but this is reflective of what is submitted. The stories aren’t monumentally cohesive, or at least are not interacting enough for them to feel like they are flowing into each other, but that is by design. That is to illuminate the difference in authorial voice.

I think deviations from genre norms or a central preferred genre is a healthy thing, but there is a great amount of care that must be taken in deciding what is too much of a deviation. I think this is something I am still coming to terms with as an editor. My hope is that the publication will continue to move towards a “New Weird” direction. That new approaches to old themes will be the foundation, with deviations here and there, rather than seeking a speculative thematic swath. But much of this comes from my decision not to assign specific themes, which in many cases, I feel can be somewhat detrimental to a platform intended to break down norms of focus, either narratively or thematically. I certainly have a much greater understanding of what MANTID is supposed to be, learning through interactions with authors, other editors, and artists. I am happy to say that a healthy amount of the original mission is still in place, and that it seems to be making an impact (however gently). It could not have happened without community interaction and participation, and for that, I am quite thankful.

AH: Recognizing that this is probably one of the more vexing questions that gets casually lobbed about these days, and in this field, but what does “new weird” mean to you? Or rather how do you, personally or as an editor, define or recognize “weird” as opposed to supernatural or “traditional storytelling”?

I feel like I understand what you mean when you say that the collections aren’t as “weird” as you “would like them” . . . there is this quality to weird fiction that, if you are versed to a degree in the subject, you just recognize it. What gets confusing for me is how, if “weird” is something that can kind of be simply recognized how does “new weird’ build on that or differentiate? I am not trying to be obtuse or difficult necessarily but this distinction between “weird” and “new weird” always makes me think — despite the fact that some folks have been able to very successfully articulate a difference — that, in saying, “new weird’ there is an implication that “weird” fiction is old or dated.

FRS: While people trend towards anchoring their definitions of “the weird” in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, I anchor my recognition of the genre from a platform of folks like Kubin, Hoffmann, Heym, Schulz, etc. with a Middle-European eye towards the intersection of the fantastic and the unusual. I think there is lot that is unexamined in the realm of Surrealism, Decadence, and Symbolism as it pertains to modern and historic weird fiction, or perhaps that it is an area of exploration that is unexamined in contrast with modern developments (which is something I am also attempting to build scholarly work within). Though it is not entirely absent. I recognize the weird through atmosphere, suggestion, absurdity, and the idea of ever-present questions pertaining to the content that linger on after reading. . . ones that are posed without emphasis or poor execution. I don’t think that if you are asking “is this weird fiction?” about a story, that it is an automatic no, though it is the case (as I’m sure you know well!) that when something is just weird, you know it and it rings true immediately. I am of the opinion that Virgilio Piñera is the greatest writer of the weird ever to have lived, and those who are familiar with his works (or wish to become familiar) would get a sense of what my hope is for the eventual overall feel of the anthology series. My only real hard position in all of this is that I generally reject the notion that all weird fiction must have something cosmic about it. I am not a fan of excessive categorization and subgenre definitions, but I do consider cosmic horror to be different from the weird, and perhaps what may be defined as monstrous and where that may manifest itself in weird fiction is another question that pops up from time to time.

I generally reject the idea of “New Weird” if it is a suggestion of extensive content/conceptual differences because I only see minor distinctions, and the change of name does little other than to differentiate the works from those of yesteryear, or perhaps for writers to distance themselves from writers/writings within the genre, historically. Works that are called New Weird trend towards subversion of aspects more readily found in fantastic literature, this is true. My perspective pushes me towards seeing that if New Weird must be accepted as a new genre, then there are two main aesthetic avenues that deal with that progression (hyperrealistic-”accessible” and absurdist-maximalism) and they may be considered distinct from weird fiction itself, but that still feels as though it is an uncomfortable distinction. Though that is perhaps another topic of discussion.

I find it to be counter-productive to the idea that weird fiction needs to be progressive and innovative if we begin to break it down endlessly into subgenres. To do so may be better for readers to navigate what they want to read, but it also runs the risk of taking away this very vital conversation itself, which is “what is weird fiction?” The question itself is valuable because from it flourishes an enormous amount of discussion. “New Weird” may be used to differentiate the historic pulp horror days and the modern literary horror era, both housed within the genre… but the idea of definition is overly cautious. And I hate the idea that some literature is better than others, because that which is complex or “literary” is not automatically better writing. The genre is revolves around the indefinable. That which is authentic is not fixed, perhaps. Having said that, that which some weird fiction as it manifested in the early 20th century is certainly dated, particularly that which reflects the more atrocious viewpoints of society that had not yet been acknowledged as heinous. I don’t dismiss controversial or dated works because if one is to learn and progress, you need to know the history. But Weird fiction is evolving and needs no change in title to continue. Key aspects can circulate in a narrative and provide a platform for new perspectives, but that alone does not merit an entire new genre.

As an editor, I struggle with selections because it seems that there is a lot of confusion about what merits the title of “weird,” but I think this stems from timidity rather than ignorance. I do think that the collections thus far have leaned more towards supernatural and fantastic fiction, with a few weird insertions cropping up here and there. The goal is to move towards collections that are more easily considered weird. So how I approach it in theory/intent and practice/manifestation has yet to find quite the right balance, as of now.

AH: With regards to this goal, anything you would be willing to share about the next volume of MANTID or other projects you may currently be working on?

FRS: The goal is for the fourth volume to become more comprehensively weird, and I hope that contributors will not shy away from taking real chances. The publication is friendly to experimental approaches, and this is an aspect I hope to increase as we move forward. There are already a few authors who have agreed to contribute (as they were unable to last time), so the outlook is very positive for the volume. I hope that anyone who hesitated to submit to our open call will do so freely, as the intent is to promote new voices alongside the known ones.

I am also developing a “weird theatre” anthology and seeking a publisher for that project, but for now that is on slow boil and will likely not bloom until 2020.

AH: If one is interested in submitting, what is the best way to do so?

Finally, closing this interview out… have you read anything good lately?

FRS: The main website has been discontinued, but any interested writers may keep watch on our facebook page for updated guidelines and the next submission call. It will likely be posted in late Autumn. That is facebook.com/mantidmagazine.

I certainly have been reading quite a lot lately! Which is a relief, because I fell out of my usual reading cycle last year and it caused some anxiety! I just came out of a wave of reading decadent works and a few poetry collections (studying Georg Trakl for a hope-for scholarly piece) and the moderate emotional exhaustion that caused has led me back to my favorite work by Walter Moers, called The City of Dreaming Books. It’s a charming, quite unique fantasy piece that I return to often in times of disarray. I recently finished reading Member by Michael Cisco in order to prepare myself for the release of UNLANGUAGE (which is coming out soon from Eraserhead Press). I also recently read Pretty Marys All in a Row by Gwendolyn Kiste and was really enchanted by it.

Originally published in Dead Reckonings no. 23.

Alex Houstoun is a co-editor of Dead Reckonings.

Farah Rose Smith is a writer, weird artist, and the publisher of MANTID. More information about her work can be found at https://www.facebook.com/farahrosesmith/ and more information about MANTID can be found at https://www.facebook.com/mantidmagazine/.

A Review of Horror and the Weird in the Arts

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