Adrian Van Young on the Uncanny Origins of “Midnight Self”

Adrian Van Young

I’ve long admired the writings of Adrian Van Young, and I’m happy to report that his new collection Midnight Self continues his trademark blend of visceral imagery, contemplative plotting, and occasional forays deep into the uncanny. This is a collection in which historical figures encounter bizarre figures and where a thrift-store find becomes something both truly alien and truly alienating. I caught up with Van Young to learn more about the book’s origins and to get to the bottom of some of the nightmare fuel that emerged from these tales.

What was the process of selecting stories for Midnight Self and sequencing it like? Were there any challenges as far as what to leave in and what to keep out?

In rolling out the collection, lots of people have asked me this question, actually, and I think part of the reason is that the selection of stories is so eclectic (translate: all over the place–hahaha!). Over the years I have increasingly come to terms with the fact that I am a fairly restless and chameleonic writer; I find it difficult to write exclusively within one genre, in one voice, or within a given set of structural parameters for too long at a stretch, and therefore have a tendency to shift postures and aesthetics frequently over the course of spinning out a story cycle so as not to bore myself, to keep things energetic. John Wray, a writer I hugely admire, does something similar with each novel. Perhaps, then, I am attempting to be the John Wray of story-writing! 

Midnight Self draws from about ten years of story-writing. The title story is actually and perhaps appropriately the oldest story (it was published in slightly different form and under a different title in Black Warrior Review’s 2013 “Time Travel” issue), and the others, too, more or less span that same timeframe: 2013-2022. That said, I’ve written far more than just these stories over the course of those years, and to some degree (as you seem to suspect) culling the ones you find here was a challenge. Originally, there were three to four additional stories that didn’t make the cut. But what I would like to think unifies the stories in Midnight Self  is that most of these stories are stories of the Uncanny, stories with a monster (whether human or inhuman) at the center of them, stories where characters, like so many people, don’t necessarily change at the end, and stories that center on the inherent brokenness and fragility of being human–how we are all of us victims to our own worst impulses, habits, deficiencies while still trying to live what each of us interprets individually as a “moral,” or right life. 

I feel like I need to ask about “The Flesh Strip.” I could probably do this whole interview focusing entirely on “The Flesh Strip,” honestly, but I’ll stick to the biggest question I have after reading that: how did that incredibly unsettling image come up? 

Yes, always happy to talk about “The Flesh Strip,” which often either doesn’t work for folks or, unexpectedly, it’s their favorite story. It’s also probably: (a) the most thoroughly revised story in the book (I think I wrote at least 7-8 drafts of “Flesh Strip” before it felt right); and (b) the most, just, wrong, evil story I’ve ever written. Not a shred of decency or hope in that one–though I do like to think it’s sort of funny! The initial inspiration for “The Flesh Strip”–which is about a sort of possessed/haunted gnome doll that begins to have a malevolent effect on the mother-daughter owners of a crumbling ancestral house somewhere in the Gulf South–was an actual, hideous doll I found in a thrift store bin at an actual Salvation Army in New Orleans (where I live), somewhere in the vicinity of 2015. This doll had a profound effect on me! It was just completely unseemly, with this obscene, vestigial membrane connecting its ears across the back of its neck–so singular and strange it demanded on the spot to have a story written about it. Granted, some details changed in the process. The original doll was actually a clown doll, which I changed to a gnome because this was also around the time that Andres Muschietti’s I thought very good and very successful adaptation of King’s IT was being released and I didn’t want to be caught lurking around too close to the clown bandwagon. Also, it became clear after looking at the doll for a moment that what I had originally identified as a “flesh strip” wasn’t that at all but rather the remnants of badly rendered Bozo haircut (I’ve also heard it referred to as a “Mr. Burns cut” or “power donut” or something like that)–yet even after my mind processed this fact intellectually, I was imaginatively unable to see the haircut as anything other than the aforementioned “flesh strip,” which in the story is described as looking like “an old keloid scar” or like “bubblegum slabbed onto [the back of the doll’s] neck”–a fluke on the doll-making assembly line. Or so the main character in the story suspects. And I was fine with that! The so-called “flesh strip” in the story completely took on a life of its own. Ditto the mother-daughter pair at the center of the story, who were inspired by another very strange mother-daughter pair I used to see at the play center where I took my then-infant son: two women separated by about twenty years, with bright red hair, who looked like they were out of an altogether different age, or who looked like they originated from outside time itself. They just gave off an aura of, I don’t know, eccentricity and perhaps degeneracy that I found intriguing (apologies if they are reading this!). Thus was “The Flesh Strip” born! 

In both “The Burial Party” and “Skin Like Velvet, Buds Like Snow,” you avoid using specific names for many of the characters. What was it about these stories that made this approach be the one you took?

Great question! Well, in “The Burial Party”–which is based on a true story about a federal deputation sent out across the South during Reconstruction to  memorialize the unnamed Civil War dead, yet here with a decidedly supernatural outcome (ZOMBIES!!!!)–the central character, who goes just by “The Nurse” in the story, is actually based on the real-life historical figure Clara Barton, who began her life as a brilliant military nurse in the Civil War only to become an important American social and political reformer. And to imagine she accomplished all this only after that notoriously disastrous trip South to number and record the names of the fallen–presumably without encountering any zombies. 

“The Heiress,” on the other hand, who is the central character in “Skin Like Velvet, Buds Like Snow,” is based on another real-life historical figure, Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune, who after a life of terrible hardship (her only child and her husband both died when she was fairly young) went on to build a incoherently rambling Victorian mansion in San Jose, CA in the early 20th-century which now stands as a regional spookhouse of sorts, reputed to be haunted. And she never stopped building! To the point where the mansion almost began–or seemed to begin–to self-propagate, like some uncanny living thing.

The short answer being this: in tackling these two larger than life ladies of history, who already have so much mythology swirling around them, I figured it best to take an indirect approach, sort of hinting at who they were, or might be without stating it explicitly. That way, I was able to reclaim them somewhat, I felt, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. This was certainly more difficult with Clara Barton than Sarah Winchester as Barton is a more towering presence in American history, whereas Winchester is more of a curiosity, maybe. But it certainly was fascinating reading about them and attempting to reinvent them.

Your novel Shadows in Summerland also draws on history; what attracts you to moments and figures from the past?

Yeah, I am definitely crushing hard on history, that’s safe to say. You know, this is a question I’ve often asked myself as a writer and I feel, in the end, I really have no good answer for it. My father is a historian of 19th-century Latin America (revolutionary Mexico, specifically) and my wife, who is also a Unitarian Minister, is currently midway through a PhD in History at Tulane focusing on the intersection of reproductive rights and religion on the transnational stage, so perhaps, to some degree, it’s in the blood? In the air? Personally, too, I’ve always been drawn to epic or intimate-scale historical narratives with a strong sense of voice and setting: Hilary Mantel’s Henry VIII novels, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector, Lauren Groff’s Matrix, among others, all come to mind. Moreover, I think many of the first books I encountered as a reader were either historical narratives or novels from the 19th-century so I have a fairly innate sense for those literary cadences and concerns. But the short of it is that historical narratives, above so many others in my mind, present a unique opportunity for writing in a distinctive, lyrical voice that blends whatever modern sensibility the writer may be wedded to in their own time with something from the past, and that really appeals to me. Not to mention the many fascinating ways that a historical narrative can bring a larger than life figure or time period to startling, immediate life. Like, I remember picking up Mantel’s Wolf Hall (the first of the Henry VIII novels) way back when and in the first few pages of reading was just astounded by the degree to which Henry VIII/Cromwell’s story, which is one we’re all familiar with to some degree from having taken European history in high school or just being culturally literate, comes breathtakingly to life. Not only are all the sights and smells and sounds right there on the page (not to speak of the Charles’ and the Johns’–soooooooo many Charles’ and Johns’), but the emotional lives of these colossal figures from Tudor history become very much entwined with ours as modern readers. Well, there’s something very beautiful and hard to accomplish about that, I think. And I find myself continually drawn to the challenge. It’s intoxicating. 

There’s some interesting formal experimentation in here; I’m thinking especially of “The Case of the Air Dancer.” Did you always have the true-crime format in mind for this story?

The correct answer to that question would be–I think so? I suppose I can’t remember exactly what structure I had in mind for “Air Dancer” when I first conceived of it (I was altogether more interested in writing a story about a twisty tube man that eats people like the worm-Freddy Krueger in Dream Warriors–haha!), but I do believe it had something to do with telling the story like an interview, or like some collation of conflicting accounts of the same event. I suppose this is called simultaneous action? Yes, I wanted simultaneous action to happen in “Air Dancer,” but I wasn’t quite sure how and that’s when, slowly but surely, this Unsolved Mysteries-format of the lurid true crime TV show suggested itself to me. And as it turned out that was an extremely fun format to work in! To some degree, I think it constrained my tendency toward overwriting in somewhat of a stylistically ornate, completist mode, bringing the heart of the story more into focus. I’m certainly very happy with the way it turned out and, in fact, “Air Dancer,” along with “Hammer” (as opposed to “Flesh Strip”) were actually two of the least revised stores in the collection; they both more or less emerged in one solid stream, undergoing only minor tweaks in the second and third drafts. I think the voices, in both, simply carried me away. 

Circling back, though, I love formal experimentation in fiction, especially as it relates to structure. I have another story not included in any collection that unscrolls as a series of YouTube posts, Reddits and Subreddits, and another set to be included in a third as yet unpublished collection that’s comprised of a series of kindergarten class news bulletins. Voice/POV and structure are definitely the craft elements most important to me as a writer and it’s my belief that if you follow your winning impulses when it comes to those, the stories tend to write themselves. 

Parts of the collection – I’m thinking especially of “Long Pig” – combine elements of multiple genres. Did you have a sense when you began it that it would have both science fictional and horror elements, or did that arrive later down the line?

Yeah, “Long Pig” is a strange one, for sure–even for a Van Young story! I think of it as my little literary freak in the basement, if that makes any kind of sense. I originally wrote “Long Pig” (which is about a morally dubious petting zoo owner in a post-apocalyptic future where a great deal of the earth’s animal population has died off due to some killer prion only to be replaced with bio mechanical stand-ins–alongside a rigorous program of human serfdom) for an anthology call for a book called Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creature and Tech, edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller, which was published in 2018. Originally, I’d intended it to be a more or less straight-ahead science fiction story about, well, mechanical animals, but then, as is the Van Youngian way, I guess, these Gothic elements sort of crept in (the title comes from an anecdotal term for human flesh consumed as meat), and it became the mad horror-sci-fi hybrid you see before you. Overall, I’m a fan of mixing these genres; I often find this particular mix comes off very well (take Alien, for instance, or the sci-fi stories of Brian Evenson). And I think there’s precedent for it elsewhere in the collection–“The Skin Thing,” for instance, and arguably “The Bachelor’s Tale,” which are both vaguely sci-fi/horror-ish, or at least Lovecraftian. 

But finally I do think that this same macabre aesthetic seeps into whatever I’m writing, and I’ve come to be more than okay with that fact; I welcome it, because I can’t ultimately control it. At the moment, for instance, I’m writing what might’ve otherwise been a relatively standard magical realism-inflected historical novel about the Polish story writer Bruno Schulz, killed by the Nazis in WWII, but from the beginning I could feel that macabre uncanny creepiness hedging in from the sides, and now, guess what, it’s a freakin’ vampire story all of a sudden! Just goes to show you. 

The walls in “The Bachelor’s Tale.” Dear lord, man. How much do your own fears and anxieties filter into these stories? Both this story and “The Skin Thing” have a quality that really stands out for me when reading the uncanny, which is to say: weird elements that follow their own logic, even if that logic might be alien to a human reader.

Yes, as you guess rightly, I’m a huge proponent of the Uncanny as both a genre and as a literary effect in writing fiction, and I like to think of it as binding this book together more than any other aesthetic. Moreover, I also think it’s an excellent prism through which to explore the very kinds of personal fears and anxieties you ask me about here because in the end the Uncanny is all about repression, and the unconscious mind (at least in the strictest Freudian definition of it)–how certain personal and cultural primal fears resurrect themselves in our daily lives and in relation to the objects and experiences that surround us. The sort of disordered internal logic you’re talking about is what, I suppose, one might call dream logic, the invasion of suppressed modes of experiencing and organizing the world into everyday existence. Many of my stories do follow such a logic, on the one hand. But on the other they very much follow the logic of thrillers and scary stories, which are piloted by their own set of conventions. Samanta Schweblein and Helen Phillips and Amelia Gray all do dream logic better than I do. 

My fears and anxieties one-hundred-percent make it into my fiction, and I’m very conscious of that as I write. Oftentimes, in fact, it’s my habit to write about a scary emotion in order to better understand it. If I incorporate it into my fiction, I can explore it safely, without consequence or damage to the conscious mind that would normally shrink away from it–and does. I’ve always been highly disconcerted by those twisty tube men, for instance (recently vindicated by literal genius Jordan Peele in Nope–ahem). And being gummed down the gullet of a flabby, mantis-like space monster isn’t a priority for me either. But in all seriousness, yes, as a father of two young children, I just wrote another whole-ass themed collection all about the horrors of parenting, where I explore a host of other things that absolutely and intimately terrify me. Like losing my kids. Like losing my wife as a spouse and a partner. Like losing myself in relation to my kids. Somewhat hamfistedly, perhaps, the collection is called The Family Thing. 

Do your own reading tastes venture into the uncanny? Anything that you’ve been reading lately that you’ve enjoyed? (Or been creeped out by?)

My reading tastes are usually pretty evenly split between your standard domestic realist literary fiction and literary genre fiction, much of it having something to do with the Uncanny in one way or another, I suppose. The best Uncanny work of fiction I’ve read in the past five-to-ten years was without a doubt Helen Phillips’ novel, The Need. That book absolutely wrecked me. Left me haunted, infested, devastated. And also forever changed in my valuation of what Uncanny fiction can do. An elemental, evil book–like the Necronomicon or some shit, except it was written by some seemingly very nice person who lives in Brooklyn. I can’t recommend it enough. But get yourself straight before you read it. 

In terms of more recent fare, I’ve actually been going back and forth between two Uncanny collections (reading story collections side by side is something I often like to do): Bernardo Esquinca’s The Secret Life of Insects and Bennett Sims’ Other Minds and Other Stories. Both are superb, which I can’t always say for both of the collections I happen to be reading at once, but here it applies, The Esquinca is very much like reading Ligotti, or Poe, or someone like that. Extremely clever, cerebral, economical and sometimes slightly more traditional horror stories that get under your skin and stay there. There’s an amazing formal control and an intimidating critical intelligence behind them. In the Sims, equally so, although Sims’ stories (which I never miss–plus, he is a wonderful person and a friend) also happen to be gut-bustingly funny, as well as elegant, and cinematic, and psychologically terrifying.  I’m so impressed by both of these authors. (I have another memory of having done this same kind of simultaneous story collection reading recently with Laura Van Den Berg and Mariana Enriquez–another Uncanny twosome.) It’s like switching back and forth between two complementary yet also sharply different bags of Halloween candy. You can’t stop eating either so you eat both at once. 

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.