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Friday, January 8, 2021

Meet Usman Malik: A New Must Know Voice in Dark Fantasy and Horror

Yesterday, I posted the links to my current horror review column in Library Journal. As part of that issue I also conducted an interview with one of my STAR review authors, Usman Malik. 

The interview was edited for length in the magazine, but here is the full, unedited interview we did. Malik offers many names of non-American or British influences that are worth a closer look for your collections. I am so happy that I could bring you this interview so that you can learn more about this rising star.

Click here for access to my review of Midnight Doorways. It is the epitome of "dark magic;" some of the stories are still with me and none of them are predictable.


Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani-American writer and doctor. His fiction has been reprinted in several year's best anthologies including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Million Writers Award, and twice for the Nebula. He has won the Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy awards. Usman's debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan has garnered praise from writers such as Paul Tremblay, S.A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Joe Hill, and will be out in early 2021. You can find him on Twitter @usmantm.

BS: American audiences have gotten to know you through your stories that have been included in some of Ellen Datlow’s critically acclaimed horror anthologies. What is it about horror, and specifically the short story form, that excites you as a creator and a reader?

UM: I've been gravitating to uncanny literature since I was a child. I remember watching a Bollywood horror movie called Taikhana (The Room Beneath) as a five-year old -- I don't know where I watched it; perhaps at a cousin's? -- which featured the reanimated corpse of a black magic practitioner that, wrapped in a grimy shawl, killed intruders in the underground chambers of the mansion it haunted. The terror and awe that monster inspired stayed with me for years. Perhaps it was a jolting realization that I, too, was mortal, dispensable. As I grew older, I realized horror fiction and film woke me up in a way other genres didn't. I love realism's commanding sense of history and the present, science fiction and fantasy's sense of wonder, but horror has a sense of dark wonder and beauty that can pry open one's brain in a different way. A lot of golden age SF is 'adventure stories dressed up with lasers' as Ted Chiang once described it and gets pulpy very quickly, but even the weakest of horror fiction or film, for me, is psychologically rich and incisive. Horror can be more human and, paradoxically, more real than realism sometimes may be. This is especially apparent to me in Pakistani English literature, which, dominated by realist fiction, has more stereotypes and tropes than genre fiction does. Interestingly, in my experience, that makes any genre work by emerging Pakistani writers more compelling and unique than its realist counterpart.

A short story spins and condenses fear in a way novels often can't. The rise and swoop of the short form makes the eventual punch that much more powerful. That may be exemplified by the fact that otherwise decent horror novels fail their endings more frequently than good horror stories do. Another thing about short stories is you can experiment with form and substance more freely: you're not bound to the whims of industry and marketing, which sometimes happens with novels.

BS: You are a dual citizen, American and Pakistani and live in both places. You are also a medical doctor who writes speculative fiction. These dualities define you as a human, but how do they manifest themselves in your work?

UM: Dualities and forking paths have pretty much defined my career trajectory. Had it not been for my brother's visit to Florida from Pakistan in 2012, I'd have remained a physician who never took up the pen; his leaving prompted a fit of homesickness that made me desperate to do more than medical work, which was burning me out. Had I not decided to fly off to the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City, a con I'd never even heard of till three days before the con weekend, I'd never have met up with other writers of uncanny or horror fiction.


The SF critic John Clute once told me migration is self-exile. It was a startling statement that has reverberated in my head and my fiction to this day. I've never truly felt at home in either Pakistan or the US since I moved to the States more than a decade ago. That nearly umbilical severing led to heartache, nostalgia and a deep sense of loss for me that I had difficulty coming to terms with for years. Later that feeling of being unrooted got compounded by the fact that I could neither devote myself entirely to writing nor could I become A. Rae Gilchrist's 'compleat physician'; I was compelled to be both by forces beyond my control. 

I do think that duality has seeped into most of my work. My characters are often consumed by seeking. Several of my stories, as Brian Keene pointed out to me once, are often about real or imagined childhoods. Overtime, I have learned to pick the best of both worlds: medicine and literature; Pakistan and America. And while I hope that that might bring a sense of grounding to my work, I hope it does not lead to absolute stasis.


BS: Let’s talk about your most recent release, your first collection. You are not only presenting 7 of your own stories, or fables as you call them, but also black-and-white illustrations by different Pakistani artists.

UM: As a child, some of my favorite books were illustrated editions of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other canonical writers. These books boasted sketch art and color plates by artists like Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Edward Gorey, and Gustave Dore. I loved their fierce and evocative imagery; in some ways it made the fiction more tangible, more real. I suppose when time came to put out my debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan I wanted my stories dramatized in a similar fashion, yet I wanted them done my way. These were stories of people who looked like me and acted like me; why should any visual representation of their inner or outer landscapes be any different? Therefore, we reached out to nine Pakistani artists and designers whose collaboration has meant that the collection has sort of become a community project showcasing the best of Pakistani speculative art. 


As to why I call these stories fables, if fables are lies that narrate useful truths, these are tales of living, breathing people whose fears and fantasies are contemporary yet also ancient. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said about his work, "In Mexico … surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America." This is very much true of the Indian subcontinent and South Asia.  

BS: Who are the non-American or British creators who have most influenced you? Those you wish more American readers had access to. 

UM: I grew up grounded in Urdu literature. Writers of pulp fiction and what we might call middle grade or YA fantasy, horror, and spy stories such as Mazhar Kaleem, Maqbool Jahangir, the great A. Hameed (who also penned the most popular Pakistani TV series for kids called Ainak Wala Jinn (The Bespectacled Jinn), Isthiyaq Ahmad, all heavily influenced and perhaps shaped my reading preferences as a child. I also read and listened to a lot of Urdu poetry, sung or recited on TV or radio; if you live in India or Pakistan, it is impossible to escape poetry. Don't be surprised if an Uber driver in Pakistan quotes an entire chapter of Iqbal, Faiz, or Ahmad Fraz during your ten-minute ride to the grocery store. Naiyer Masud is perhaps the most important post-Partition Urdu writer of the short story. His work runs in the vein of Kafka and occasionally

Thomas Ligotti, yet the minimalist, almost Hemingway-stringent style of his prose lends it an unparalleled uncanniness. It is criminal that he is not better known to the masses in the Indian subcontinent, let alone in the West.

BS: You recently had a novella released through Tor.com too. Can you

tell us about that tale, and also how you approach that format differently from a story?

UM: I rarely plan for a story to be a novelette or a novella. There are certain things I want to do in a new story, perhaps an interesting concept, a particular image, voice, or narrative structure, and I follow through on that. Some ideas need less space, others more. This particular piece, a novelette called City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat is a feminist retelling of an Arabian Nights story. I wanted to structure it like a tale from A Thousand and One Nights with stories unfurling into more stories, the layers

of fantasy suctioning the reader deep into a labyrinth of interconnected fantasies till it all coalesces and blossoms together. Doing that required a bit more space, so it became a novelette.

Having said that, I do tend to sprawl as a writer. There's only one story in my collection Midnight Doorways that's shorter than five thousand words. Perhaps I'm a long form writer, after all, who just hasn't had time to write a novel yet.

BS: Why do you think horror is so popular right now? In general, where do

you see the genre going as it basks in its current mainstream spotlight? And specifically, where do you want to take it in your work? 

UM: Horror is always in vogue; readers and viewers just don't accept it under that moniker all the time. From 1995 to 2010 or so, it was sold to the mainstream under various genre umbrellas: dark fantasy, dystopian fiction, crime, thriller, literary fiction, supernatural thriller, mystery. From Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) to Justin Cronin's The Passage (2010), a mass audience loved and consumed horror under various guises. Meanwhile, excellent horror kept thriving in the small presses and writers such as Paul Tremblay, Gemma Files, Stephen Graham Jones, Tanith Lee, and Jeff VanderMeer continued to churn out excellent horror fiction. Over time, because they were brilliant, several of them 'broke through' and that along with the success of newer writers helped horror re-accrue the respect and wide acceptance it enjoys today.

As to why it's especially popular right now, our current sociopolitical environment isn't cozy, to say the least, and horror, as a genre, is very good at crystallization of contemporary anxieties. Its symbols and metaphors allow us to capture the zeitgeist in tangible terms. Horror fiction and filmography allow channeling of national and personal uncertainty into drawable, often subversive conclusions. That is no mean feat. I suspect the genre will continue to grow strong as long as capitalistic concerns don't overshadow the quality of the art produced in its name.

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