Hal Duncan is a writer of SF, fantasy and strange fiction in general, a member of the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle, and a monthly columnist at BSC Review. He has published two novels, VELLUM (which won the Spectrum and Tähtivaeltaja awards and was nominated for several others) and INK, a stand-alone novella, "Escape from Hell!", various short stories in magazines and anthologies, and a poetry collection, SONNETS FOR ORPHEUS. His work also includes the lyrics for Aereogramme's “If You Love Me, You'd Destroy Me,” on the Ballads of the Book album, and the musical, NOWHERE TOWN, which recently premiered in Chicago.

It was dark. I was surrounded by trees with exposed roots that twisted on the ground, covering most of it. The path was difficult because of them and of the darkness that forced me to walk slowly, with short and cautious steps.

When I pressed the button on my quantic watch, I assumed the interview was going to happen at a pub, with lots of beer or scotch. Maybe a good fight to warm up the muscles. Chairs being cast all around, fallen tables, splintered bottles. Screams, cursing and laughter. Because a good fight must have laughter. And then ice, to  ease the pain.

But as the swirl caused by the change of reality settled down, I saw myself at a desolate scene. The trees were so tall and tightened it was impossible to tell whether there was a sky above them or not. Thorny bushes fought for space with trunks and roots. And there were howls, snarls and roars not too far away.

I was looking for Hal Duncan, but I was afraid to call him. I feared my shouting would draw the attention of the savage animals that were fighting for space close by.

I rubbed my arms, trying to drive off the shivering. The air was heavy, hot and dense.   There was no smoke, but I could feel it, tenuous, in the air. I controlled the looming fear and moved on, trying not to stumble and fall.

I walked no more than three meters.

In the middle of a dense foliage I was trying to overcome, there was a man with a crazy look and bearing a club. He lifted it above his head and was about to strike a powerful blow on me when he froze. We stood there, static. Facing each other.

It was Hal Duncan, for  Heaven’s sake.

“Lower that club, man!” I asked in urgency, while he was still gazing at me with a haggard look on his face.

He listened to me, at last, and eased his moves, lowering his armed hand. He sighed and shook his head.

“That was close,” he said.

Then, he smiled and motioned his hand, showing me the surroundings.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked.

“Indeed”, I answered in a grumpy way. “Where is the beauty of this place?” I asked, at last crossing the dense foliage and standing next to him.

“Not the beauty of the place, but of the situation,” he answered, leaving me without a clue.

“What situation?”

“Can’t you feel the air? Can’t you smell it? Can’t you hear the nervous animals? Can’t you see the trees, the roots…? We are at the doors of… you know. Oh, you do know!”

“My name is not Virgil,” I answered trembling.

“And mine isn’t Dante, but we are. And you know it.”

I looked around, trying to remember when I had last browsed through the Divine Comedy. It had been a long time ago. Years. I could still remember the Gustave Dore’s paintings and how those images had disturbed me.

“What’s that club for?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

“It’s just that things are a little different here.”

“I know this must sound cliche, but this is an interview. That’s the reason we are here, not for hunting wild animals.”

Hal raised the club and handled it with skill, spinning it in the air.

“This club is not for hunting animals. It’s for protection against angels.”

All I did was look at him. Nothing in his expression showed me he was joking or trying to scare me. I bit my lips, took a deep breath and, after a good look around, asked him the first question.

“According to a previous interview, it seems you have stylistic and esthetic concern with the histories you write. Tell me how you see the dilema between form and content in genre literature.”

Hal did not answer at once. He stopped spinning the club and narrowed his eyes, paying attencion to something. He motioned me to follow him and left, walking ahead of me, skipping roots and averting thorns. We ended up at a clearing. In its centre, there was a pit or a well with a bright light and a smell of burning meat coming from it. I heard moaning. Hal poked me on the shoulder, signaled me to stand still and readied the club, raising it up to his shoulder. To my surprise, an angel with white and coruscant wings came down, hovering over the pit. Hal jumped ahead, waved the club and smashed the angel’s skull. The angel crashed on the ground, in front of us.

“But… But… What have you done?” I asked in horror, going to him.

As Hal cleaned the club on a stone, wiping off blonde curly hair and brain goo, he ignored the last question, choosing to answer the one I had asked before.

“Heh, I'm going to start by being difficult and saying there is no genre 

literature. All literature is of a genre; it’s just that some genres get
a bad rep for their ties to big-ass commercial marketing categories,
while others — like contemporary realism — pass themselves off as
somehow non-genre by being sold in the marketing category of General
Fiction. Sure, you could lump the commercial categories together as
category fiction, but apart from a pressure towards formulation that
goes with the niche marketing, I don’t see any reason to treat the two
groups separately. Or you could lump the strange fiction genres together
— which would include magical realism and fantastique and all manner of
works that aren’t considered genre. Either way, I’m going to carry on being difficult by saying that there’s no dilemma between form and content either. Words are the only substance. Words don’t carry content; they pack import. They have denotations, yes, but each also hits you with its own unique set of connotations, so you change one word in a sentence and you change its import. You can’t have two sentences as different forms for the same basic content; you have two different articulations, two different constructs of import, two different meanings. Every narrative is an articulation of words wrought into sentences, paragraphs, passages, scenes, chapters. It’s a structure of words. Words are the only substance.”

I was still trembling, looking at the angel’s body shake in short spasms. The head was smashed, liquids leaking from it. We were next to the pit and I dared to look into it. I saw what looked like human figures moving amid fire.

“Angels… what are they for?” He asked me with a bored face.

“Angels and God”, I mumbled, “are divine”, my voice wasn’t more than a squeak.

Hal embraced me and led me bwyond the pit, to what looked like a clearing. It wasn’t. It was the edge of a cliff. The few trees still surviving on the pure rock cast their twisted branches into the void. It was possible to see the sky, scratched by vertiginously fast objects. I controlled the fear and got closer to the edge, taking a horrified look down.

Ravines and plateaus. Low ridges. Fires scaterred all around. Sudden blasts cast fire and magma upwards. I saw indistinguishable shadows moving randomly on the ground and flying figures, like sparks of light, swooping down.

Even though I was not able to identify anything clearly, I felt a deep sadness. I trembled more intensely, freed myself from Hal’s embrace and retreated a few steps back. He stared at me, the club on the floor. It was possible to see behind him, at the dark sky that vanished in the horizon, the flashes from down below.

I sttutered the second question. My hands were shaking. The cold had left. I was sweating.

“You say you are a militant with an anarchist tendency. Is there much politic debate among your equals or not?

“You must make uo your mind, Tibor”.

“About what?” I asked anxiously.

“There’s a war going on. You must decide what side you are on”, he than lifted the club, resting it on his shoulder.

“I’m not interested in wars. I’m a peaceful man. This is an interview.”

“I’ll not answer your question. You will ne a tray in these land of fire until I answer your question. I know that sure enough. You’ll have to make choices or you’ll spend eternity wandering in deep suffering.”

Bastard, I thought angrily. Hal swung the club inpatiently.

“Ok,” I said at last. “I’m with you.”

He smiled, gaping. His eyes shone in satisfaction. He came to me and took me back to the edge of the cliff.

“So, let’s have fun, man!”

It felt like jumping to death. I felt I was being grabbed by the shoulder and being lifted with extreme easiness. I looked up, trying to see what or who held me. I got pale immediately. I saw a huge creature with black wings. The infuriated face had p0inted teeth, torn and chatoyand eyes, pointed ears, scales and hair that moved in a weird way, as if they were millins of larvae hooked to the skull. Then, I looked down, trying to suppress the nausea caused by fear. Hal Duncan was a fez meters away from me, riding the back of one of those demons. He held the club like a knight, ready to smash other heads.

“I don't know if I'm radical enough to qualify as a militant really -- a bit bolshie, maybe -- but all of my politics are really tendencies -- anarchist, socialist, pacifist -- too at odds with each other, and too informed by pragmatism, to really settle on a recogniseable militancy. Although I might be getting more activist in terms of queer politics as I get older; I'm certainly getting mouthier when it comes to the politics of fiction as regards the Other -- abjection on the basis of sexuality, race, gender identity, ability, etc. Anyway, yes, political debate is a large part of the circles I move in, I'd say, both in terms of daily life and in terms of the writing.”

As we went down, I was able to identify the shadowed figures moving on the ground. And also the swooping sparks of light. They were men and women, confused, lost. The sparks were angels.

We were left on a highland, surrounded by quite deep valleys. Hal was agitated, urging me to follow him. He was running down a winding path that was taking us downwards. I didn’t want to be left behind, or alone for that matter. So I followed him.

“Scotland’s got a pub culture where politics and religion are constant topics. And I’ve grown up with that, to the extent that I find it weird when you come into contact with someone who thinks those subjects shouldn’t be on the table in social settings. Like, I had one correspondant from the midwest USA, a catholic theologian, who referred to that dinner table etiquette in relation to my blog, how where he came from people generally didn’t do the whole heated debate thing in case of causing offence. Bollocks to that, I say. This is what actually matters.”

He stopped in front of a rock. We saw a woman crawling, dirty, filthy, covered in waste. It seemed like she hadn’t seen us. Hal poked me and pointed to the sky, to a point in the horizon our sights could barely reach, blocked by the rough terrain and small middens. I saw a line of what looked like souls soaring. They moved upwards to what seemed to be a dimensional opening – it reminded me of The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.

“They flee. Those aren’t the souls of redeemed humans, as you might think”, and then he smiled in delight. “Those are what is left of the angels we are killing.”

I trembled for the thousandth time.

“The online community of strange fiction writers and readers seems to be pretty fiery in those terms too. At least in the blogs and LiveJournals I follow, you’ll see politics come up quite a lot — which is good. Though it’s not always the most productive debate, I’d have to say. A lot of it, especially where it comes to the politics of race, seems to degenerate very quickly as moral panic and moral outrage smack heads. By moral panic I mean the irrational defensiveness and denials whenever you even suggest that a work is a bit… ethically dodgy. Some who like it will immediately react to as if you were wrongfully accusing them of raping kittens.”

We stopped once again. A hideous valley lay before us. Streams of sulfurous and bubbly water ran through it. There were people in and out of those waters. Flesh loose from the bones, hanging eyes, feet with broken toes that would get loose as they walked. Two of them carried their own heads, vacillating. Suddenly an angel came and, using a sword of fire, cut one of the sufferers in half.

I’d never felt more afflicted and tormented. Hal was effusive.

I looked up and saw a fight. Angels and demons flew, hitting each other, tridents and swords striking. Black and white feathers, shining, fell in a cascade. I saw some angels and demons falling, either crashing against the rocky ground or sinking in the waters.

I hurried to the third question.

“Do you consider yourself specifically a genre literature writer or do you consider the genre just a moment, just a phase? Do you intend to write realistic histories as well as you do with poetry or not?”

Hal looked at me as if I was a moron.

“There’s more to do than questions and answers, don’t you think?”

And he moved ahead, running through the narrow paths formed by the water streams. I went after him, afraid we could lose track of each other. I saw when he launched himself against the back of an angel who was fighting close to the ground, clearly outnumbered. Three demons attacked him, striking powerfully with their tridents. Hal held the angel’s neck and tried to bring him down.

He got it.

What I saw after that was a slaughter. They dismembered the celestial being, scattering his bowels over the terrain. They celebrated, full of glory, for the victory in one more battle. And then one of the demons fell, victim of a vivid lightning from the sky that crossed through him. The others took off and left quickly.

Hal returned, puffy.

“I guess my answer to that is already given, to some extent: all literature is in one genre or another. As far as moving away from a marketing category label, I’m not going to proclaim that my work isn’t Science Fiction / Fantasy even though I don’t, to be honest, consider those as particularly meaningful labels for the field of strange fiction. There’s a community there I’m happy to be a member of and have no intention of insulting — unless it’s as an insider kicking against tribalist nonsense, not wanting to see the definitions attached to those labels closed so as to exclude the crazy shit I grew up thinking of as SF. I mean, there are some tribes who insist on the narrowest of definitions, and if that mindset won the day in the end, yeah, I’d shrug and leave them to it, but I’d rather not. I could see my own brand of weird shit being sold without the label as a publisher decision, but I’d still be thinking — and talking — of it as sf.”

Hal took a deep breath, threw the club aside and sat down, leaning against a rock. I did the same. The rock was warm, the air almost impossible to breathe. A lonely heart beat a few meters away from us. No body, no blood, nothing. It just beat, at a rhythmic and apparently calm pace.

“Am I likely to change the actual kind of stuff I write, to do work that isn’t strange fiction? Well, I’ve got a screenplay that’s basically just a straight-up high school movie, without any of the weirdness you’d find in my novels or short stories, so who knows what idea might take my fancy down the line? I have eclectic tastes, and kind of like going off into the left-field in my own work — writing a musical here, a high school movie there, and of course the poetry. I kinda like the idea of working my way through as many genres as I have ideas for. So I don’t rule out the possibility that suddenly I’ll decide to do something purely realistic. I’m not sure it’s that likely though. Contemporary Realism is by definition limited, excluding the strange. It’s actively ruling out a whole toolkit of literary techniques, confining yourself to the mimetic. It’s kinda like taking all but one of the strings off your twelve-string guitar, and I can’t imagine why I’d want to restrict myself like that. I mean, as a one-off experiment in the minimalism of pure mimesis, sure; but as a committed approach for any period of time? Fuck that shit. You can be realistic without being purely realistic. And not being purely realistic means you can do a fuckload more than those Contemporary Realists are limiting themselves to.”

He silenced and so did I. I kept looking around, listening to the distant clank of the sparse battles that seemed to be never ending.

“Aren’t you going to kill any angels?” He asked me suddenly.

“No,” I answered trying to look calm. “I’m not in the mood for bursting brains.”

“It’s fun. You should try.”

“Another time, maybe.”

“I’ll let you use my club, if you want.”

“I appreciate the honor! I’ll keep that in mind in case I decide to make a swathe in Heaven.”

We were silent again. A feather of light came slowly down and fell before me, right in front of my feet. I was going to pick it up, but it vanished at the slightest touch.

“Not even a broken nose? A plucked leg?” Hal insisted.

“Later. I still have two more questions. Answer me the next one and we will kill whatever crosses our way, ok?”

“Way to go, Tibor! Ask!”

“Tell me about Vellum and Ink, unknown books here in Brasil. How did the idea to write them come up and how has the feedback been in the markets it was published?”

“The key spark was an incident in Glasgow University Library back when I was a student, primed with the notions of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Borges’s Book of Sand in my imagination. I’d done some time-wasting database search for Nostradamus and discovered the library had a copy in the “Ferguson Special Collection” which I knew was in the basement, but had never visited before. So I wandered down to find a clerk sitting alone in this shadowy room lined with glass-fronted wooden bookcases. She clearly didn’t get many visitors, so she was eager to help, and no sooner had I said what I was looking for than she was off into a back room… only to come back with this huge leatherbound tome. She’d given me a card to fill out, with a space for my tutor’s name and everything, so I was kind of shitting myself at this point, because I was only there out of idle curiosity. I mean, this thing had to be rested on foam cushions. She gave me kidskin gloves to handle it. And when I opened the pages of this priceless artifact, their parchment all brittle with age — and we’re talking hand-written here — I was acutely aware that I had no fucking valid reason to be messing about with it at all.”

Hal got the club and brought it closer to him, next to his hip. He stretched one of his legs, kicking a femur on the ground.

“All I could do was sit there for fifteen minutes or so, leafing through it and pretending to make notes on my pad — like I was actually studying it. But as I looked at this utterly inscrutable tome, I was sort of awed by the thing in and of itself, the mystery of its text, the leather of its binding, the texture of its pages. And somewhere from that came this idea that if fantasy fiction has Objects of Power — magic swords and suchlike — surely the ultimate Object of Power when it came to any fantasy was the book in which that fantasy was written. That spark caught and became an idea of the ultimate Book of Hours — those books of scriptures and sermons for dukes and princes, dividing the year up into months, days, hours of the day, with text appropriate to each period. That became The Book of All Hours, a fictive tome containing everything every written and everything never written — because it had to contain the text appropriate to every possible moment, right?”

Hal then ducked and made me do the same. Difficult task when you are sitting down. I kind of fell aside, hitting my shoulder on the ground and staining my shirt with blood. A lightning, probably rebound, skidded on a midden and hit the rock where we were. I have no idea how Hal saw or foresaw the accident, but I thanked the hells, for his quick reaction.

Even with an accelerated heart – mine, not the lonely one beating ahead of us – I straightened myself, as he did the same, keeping his line of thought.

“I spent ten years not realizing I was writing Vellum and Ink actually, working up all these short stories and novellas that riffed off each other in terms of themes and characters and tropes like this Book. It was only when I wrote what’s now the prologue of Vellum — which directly drew on that incident — that all this material began to click together into the two novels. In terms of the response, it’s been awesome. I don’t know how well they’ve gone down in some countries — I don’t have much contact with the publisher of the Spanish edition, for example — but in some of the markets I’ve just been blown away. Hell, I never really expected it to get picked up by publishers like Macmillan in the UK, Del Rey in the US, so when it started to take off, and translation rights started selling, it was fucking unreal. And where I have had contact with publishers or directly with readers, it’s been amazing to see it taking off. The launch of the Finnish edition at the Helsinki Book Fair was a highlight. The book sold out twice while I was there, and by the time I’d left the country it was already going to a second print run. And of course, Finnish fandom is awesome, so that whole week or so just rocked.”

He took a deep breath, releasing the air in a noisy blow and clapped, jumping up. He was radiant.

“That’s it! Now you will feel how wonderful it is to smash a head!”

I stood up, stretching the dirty pants. I looked at my quantic watch. Hal took the club and gave it to me. It was heavy, I could barely hold it, let alone hold it above my head.

“It’s your chance. The Angel is there, he is outnumbered.”

“Let’s go together,” I said, encouraging him. “I need my master to give me confidence.”

He smiled, understandingly. He tapped me on the shoulder and then released a war cry. I mimicked him. We ran insanely, dodging dying people and skipping sulphurous puddles. At a certain time, I dropped the club and pressed the button on my watch, throwing us back to our own reality.

There were no more questions. The interview was over.

“Hal Duncan won’t reply to my emails any longer. I understand he is mad at me, but I believe he will agree that I did the right thing. Tricking him was not nice at all, but you must agree… It was necessary!”

Delfim and Romeu Martins collaborated with this interview