In April 2016, the World Horror Convention presented Michael R. Collings its Grand Master Award. This placed him alongside such notables as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons and a host of other notables. Once we reveal Michael’s amazing curriculum vitae, we will open our interview by discussing his unique science fantasy, Singer of Lies. We will then touch on his career in academia, where he broke the accepted academic model and which then became part of the life events that led up to his recent honor. After visiting his “other” life, we will talk about the award itself and the circumstances surrounding it.
Michael R. Collings is an educator, literary scholar and critic, poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, reviewer, and editor whose work over three decades—more than one hundred books and chapbooks and thousands of chapters, essays, reviews, and poems—has concentrated on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, emphasizing the works of Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, and others. His books for Starmont House, beginning in 1984, were among the earliest serious scholarly appraisals of King. His 1990 study of Card was the first book-length exploration of Card’s fictions.
His publications include a Wildside Press best-selling horror novel, The Slab; a 6,500-line Renaissance epic in full Miltonic style, The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in XII Books; two discussions of writing, The Art and Craft of Poetry: Twenty Exercises toward Mastery and Chain of Evil: The JournalStone Guide to Writing Horror; literary analyses, as in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy: A Study in Genres; and Averse To Horrors: An Abecedary of Monsters and the Monstrous, an alphabetical treatise on horror, written in limericks.
He has served as Guest, Special Guest, and Guest of Honor at a number of cons, professional as well as fan-oriented, including Academic Guest of Honor at MythCon (Conference of the Mythopoeic Society), where he presented the Keynote Address on Orson Scott Card; Academic Guest of Honor at EnderCon, celebrating the novel’s 25th anniversary; Special Guest at the Salt Lake Comic Con (2014); and three-time Academic Guest of Honor at the World Horror Con (2008, 2012, and 2016). He is a triple finalist for the Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association; and has been twice nominated for the Bram Stoker Award® from the Horror Writers Association, once for non-fiction and once for poetry. In April 2016, he received the Grand Master of Horror award from the World Horror Convention, 2016.
He is a past Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publications, where several of the books he worked with went on to become Stoker® finalists; and his articles and reviews have appeared in both Hellnotes and the print-magazine Dark Discoveries. These and other writings are posted online at michaelrcollings.blogspot.com.
Dr. Collings was poet in residence at Pepperdine University from 1997-2003. Now retired as a professor emeritus of English after almost thirty years at Pepperdine, where his courses included literature, composition, and creative writing, he lives in Idaho with his wife and number-one fan, Judi, and writes and writes and writes.
This is how Michael summarizes Singer of Lies.
He is young and intelligent and highly trained. He is Erik Baanfeld—shipwrecked on a long-forgotten Colony world, where brawn and brute strength are more valued than knowledge. Physically untrained and emotionally unprepared in the barest skills of survival, he seems compelled to spend a short, unpleasant life as a half-naked savage worked like a beast of burden, on a world sunk into barbarism. It’s either that… or die. His only possible chance, his only hope of becoming one with the Folk, is to become a singer—and not just any singer, but a Singer of Lies!
In Singer of Lies, I enjoyed reading about an abandoned Earth colony whose culture was consciously based around the Earth epic, Beowolf, but what made you decide to use Anglo Saxon as its language base?
When Singer was drafted, I had just completed my doctoral work in English at the University of California, Riverside, a goodly portion of which included Anglo-Saxon (in the original language) and Middle English literature. My brain was steeped in the rhythms of Anglo-Saxon, as well as in the language and power of Beowulf. So, logically, I decided to put that background to good use and imagined a culture, abandoned for centuries, that had modeled itself on the epic, largely to defend itself from a creature native to the planet.
Through its various drafts, until its final publication in 2009, the one remaining constant in the novel was the setting: an Anglo-Saxon world in which a future language scholar, stranded and essentially helpless, had to figure out a way to survive.
You’ve said that there is as much horror in Beowolf as there is in a Steven King novel. Clearly, your book has its Grendel, but what else about the epic led you to write Singer of Lies?
Basically, you just answered the question. Beowulf is an epic. The Stand is an epic. The Talisman is an epic. Much of science fiction—and for that matter, much of modern fantasy and horror—picks up on the basic elements of epic and makes them contemporary. At UCR, I had taken a course in epic, in one manifestation or another, every semester for three years; I even took a directed-studies course under a world-class Miltonist and epic scholar, in which I traced epic into the twentieth century through science fiction. So when I wrote the novel—my second—it seemed obvious that it would incorporate as much of an epical sense as it could.
The Grendel-monster is one result. The world itself is another—a place so difficult for survival that Weard and his people consciously re-created a heroic age, with warriors mighty of thew and no place for the weak…which Erik definitely was.
There was a striking poem that occurred in the first half of the book. When I didn’t recognize it, I thought it might be yours. If so, what is its title? Where can we find more of your poems?
The poem (on page 173) is my translation of one of the earliest English poems, “Caedmon’s Hymn.” Even older than Beowulf, the hymn was written around 660 A.D. and survives in a number of manuscript copies.
Erik steals the context of the “Hymn” when he recites the poem as if he had composed it, which lead to him becoming the community’s Singer, but also makes him a Singer of Lies—he has stolen his way into the community, not knowing that Aethele and Weard know exactly what he has done.
I have written a great deal of poetry—in fact, one of the reasons for my receiving the Grand Master award was my support of poetry, SF/F/H especially, at a number of conventions over the past thirty years. Most of my poetry is available through Amazon, including, surprisingly enough, a Miltonic Renaissance style epic, The Nephiad: An Epic in XXIV Books; In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Myth, and Horror; Som Certaine Sonets, which contains a number of horror-oriented short poems; and Hai-(And Assorted Other)-Ku, which contains a fair number of scifai-ku and horror-ku.
One of my books, A Verse to Horror: An Abecedary of Monsters and the Monstrous, was a Bram Stoker Award® finalist for poetry. It is an alphabetical encyclopedia of horror motifs, each entry reduced to a single poem…a limerick.
My current project, Corona Obscura: Sonets Dark and Elemental is a “corona” or “crown” of sonnets on horror themes. A sonnet corona typically consists of seven poems on a single theme, the last line of the first becoming the first line of the second, and so on until the final poem. Its last line is identical to the first line of the sequence, completing the circle or crown. Corona Obscura is a squared-corona… forty-nine sonnet-like poems, each linked last line to first.
The Dean at your division at Pepperdine University once told you that he and your colleagues, in your words, “did not feel you were doing literary work.” You also related that you had been denied an academic chair as a result of your focus on speculative fiction. Has that academic short-sightedness changed in any appreciable way since then, either at Pepperdine, or throughout academia at large?
In all fairness, the Division chair was relaying the feelings of several colleagues; throughout my tenure at Pepperdine, the chairs supported me as much as possible, but, yes, there was considerable hesitance about my work in speculative fiction. One colleague told one of my students that Stephen King had no place on a college campus; another sat down with me and told me exactly how to get my career back on track.
I have been told that part of the reason SF/F/H is increasingly accepted in academics is that my early work on King demonstrated how his stories could be discussed in academic terms. By the time I left Pepperdine, half a dozen others in my division were working at one level or another with speculative fiction, and in general I think that is true of many colleges and universities. It is, after all, difficult to completely ignore the books that students seem to find important.
I often find that when I am under the gun I produce more work. Conversely, when I have more leisure time, I get less done. Now that you are retired, do you find more time to write than when you were working, or just the opposite?
My first two novels were drafted while I was in graduate school. Many of my academic books were written while I was teaching. But since I left Pepperdine on a medical early retirement (my increasing deafness made it difficult for me to hear my students) in 2006, I have revised much of that early work, including those first two novels and my doctoral dissertation on Milton, and published them, many through Wildside Press. The bulk of my publications have come in the past ten years: novels, collections of short fiction, poetry collections. It seems that I can’t not write.
Is there an author who fascinates you, whom you have yet to write about, and do you have plans to do so?
Not an author, but a body of work. I still intend to do a book-length study of King’s Dark Tower Series. I’ve written on Orson Scott Card and his Ender novels; on C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy; on my son Michaelbrent’s Billy Saga…and next is the most challenging of all.
Why do you say your children didn’t dare bring their writing to you, but rather to your wife, Judi?
From the time I received my doctorate, I became “Doctor Daddy,” the professional writer and reader, the one they saw making big red marks on student papers and the one who talked about what was right and wrong in other people’s writing. Judi was the nurturer. They knew she was “safe”—she would love them and what they gave her no matter what. Understand that my older son was writing “novels” by the age of seven. They all went through an early apprenticeship in writing something, having Mom read it, and going back and writing something else. I think Doctor Daddy was just too unapproachable at that stage.
Aside from reading and writing, what are your favorite pursuits?
I love music. I played the organ for my church for over fifty years and treasure every moment of the experience. I stopped about a year ago—I could no longer hear the notes I was playing and relied on Judi for signals about volume. It finally became too much and I asked to be released. I’ve not touched a keyboard since.
It’s much the same with everything else. Being severely deaf, with world-class tinnitus in both ears and frequent balance problems as well, I’ve been systematically cut off from much that I enjoy. I rarely participate in groups of more than one or two, since I won’t understand most of what is said otherwise. On panels, I usually do not hear the other panelists’ comments, and Judi usually repeats audience questions for me.
Movies are out, as are sports—too much noise, not enough understood.
So basically, I read and write, take drives with Judi, enjoy my children and grandchildren (in small doses—I can’t understand most of what the younger ones say) and in the most literal of senses, try to stay sane.
In the world of literary cons, where will the next year take you?
This is a difficult question, because of the hearing. Travel is hard; air travel especially leaves my ears roaring for hours afterward. Con attendance is something that I am thinking about seriously, although I enjoy the opportunities to present papers and do Q&A sessions.
Tell us about the circumstances surrounding your recent award, Grand Master of Horror. Who made the decision and how were you notified?
Early in the planning process for each World Horror Convention, attending and supporting members of the World Horror Society receive requests to nominate a Grand Master recipient. The recipient must be living (at least at the time of the nomination) and have many years of participation in any facet of horror, including literature, film, or art. The nominations are closed at the end of the preceding year, ballots counted, and (if still living) the recipient is notified about a month before the WHC.
I received an email from the WHC coordinator at the end of March this year, telling me about the award. At the end of WHC2016, I formally received the award.
There is a list of all previous Grand Masters posted at http://whc2016.org/gma.html. It is an intimidating list of extraordinarily talented story tellers, including many of the people whose books I have reviewed and otherwise written about. I was stunned to be told that my name would now be on the list. And am still stunned…but proud.
Those who would like to purchase Michael’s books can do so at:
His review/essay site, Collings Notes, is:
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