Reading Bennett Sims is a little like finding yourself in a dark forest, trudging your way through with little to no light to let you see where you’re going — in a good way. In the experienced horror writer’s third book and second short story collection, Other Minds and Other Stories, he goes back and forth between gruesome, explosive thrillers and creepy, atmospheric reads impossible to decipher where he, or his narrator, will go next. In “Unknown,” a man receives a phone curse from a woman he meets at the mall, the protagonist in “Pecking Order” attempts to brutally murder a devilish chicken, “Portonaccio Sarcophagus” sees the narrator ruminating on an art display that sends him down a swirl of personal memories, and “The Postcard” uses video game-like narration for a ghostly effect. Wholly original and totally unsettling, Sims’ new collection is spellbinding and nail-biting with the turn of every story.
Our Culture sat down with Sims to discuss a trip to Rome, influences, and playing with structure.
Congratulations on your third book! Now that this is your second story collection, does the process get easier each time?
I find stories really difficult to write in an evergreen way, because each story finds its own form and suggests its own set of problems that have to be solved. Every story in this collection is something I began with, a paragraph, a scene, or a line, and something I returned to over the course of months and sometimes years, trying to find a narrative through it. No matter how many stories I write, it feels like the first one I’m writing, because it feels like the first iteration of its form.
One thing that was unique about Other Minds is that it didn’t seem like a bunch of random stories slapped together, though those kinds of collections are also very enjoyable. This collection seemed very planned out, interspersed with one-page stories and photos from your time in Rome and elsewhere. Talk a little bit about putting this whole book together.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I wrote a lot of these stories while on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, which was a really beautiful year. It was an interdisciplinary fellowship which brings together artists, photographers, classicists, archaeologists, writers and so on. A lot of the stories are set in Rome at the academy, or at a residency, but some were written after. The preoccupation all the stories share is signaled by the title, ‘Other Minds and Other Stories,’ so all of the stories are about characters who are curious about the conscious experience of other people or subjects, whether those are other humans, backyard chickens they’re raising, ghosts, etc. Once I started to notice the stories were talking to each other in that way, without even necessarily thinking of them as part of a book, I did start revising them toward one another, nudging them closer in their language and their inter-echoing.
One example of that is the title story, about this ‘Reader’ character who is trying to project himself into another character’s consciousness, and in that case, it’s everyone who has left highlights on his e-reading device; he wonders what was going through their minds when they underlined it. Parallel to that story, I was working on another one called “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,” which is also about a character called the ‘Reader’, who is a philosophy graduate student applying for a prestigious fellowship, trying to imagine what his judge will be thinking when they read his cover letter. So when I was working on those two stories, I wasn’t thinking of the Reader as the same character in a literal narrative sense, that the Reader of “Other Minds,” once he’s finished reading his e-book, applies to graduate school and goes on to apply for this fellowship. But the more I worked on them and the more I began thinking about them living together between the same covers, it became obvious to me that they were the same character in this deeper thematic sense. And even in a formal sense, both stories are block paragraphs, which is a form I inherit from the writer Thomas Bernhard, both have similar internal monologues and obsessions, and once I recognized that I started teasing out the echoes between them, to the extent that there’s one line that occurs in “Other Minds”: “All his life, if you asked him why he read, he would’ve said he was curious about other minds.” I took that line and put it in “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel” as well. It’s just one moment where their minds touch each other as two different characters arrive at the same thought.
Like you mentioned, you also played with form and structure a lot in these — often a whole story will be just one paragraph or broken up into some distinct parts. What was the thought process behind these?
Form is always a really interesting question. I tend to think about form in terms of tradition, or lines of influence. When I’m writing in a block paragraph, I mentioned Thomas Bernhard, he writes these novels that are completely unbroken monolithic paragraphs, just a wall of text for 200 pages to reproduce a character’s internal monologue. When I am writing a very self-conscious narrator in a dilated moment of dramatic time, I’ll often use this block paragraph, which is a form without interruption or transition or break.
Another story, “Minds of Winter,” each of those four vignettes is itself a block paragraph, but there’s the implied break, the move from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. I was thinking about Lydia Davis, whose work I think a lot about in general, has one story in particular, “The Cows,” about a character looking out a window and describing the cows that she sees in her backyard in a series of really short haiku-like vignettes, purely observational paragraph units. When I was writing my story about a character looking outside the window describing a blizzard that has snowed him in, I was thinking about “The Cows” as a model for structuring that narrative.
Another book I was thinking about was Nicholson Baker’s “A Box of Matches,” about a narrator who wakes up every morning to start a fire and then just sits in front of it and describes the ambers. His mind ranges widely as he thinks about his family and his farmhouse, and what’s preoccupying him as he keeps this pre-dawn diary. That novel has a form where every chapter is an uninterrupted block of consciousness, and the break comes between chapters.
There’s this really moving and personal story, “Portonaccio Sarcophagus”, that combines art history, memory, loss of it, and legacy, and what haunts us. Was the art installation the starting point for this cascading swirl of thoughts?
It’s autofictional in the sense that it incorporates a real family photograph of mine, which features my own mother posing beside a gravestone with what appears to be the specter of the Grim Reaper standing behind her, which was some photographic glitch I’ve never been able to figure out. That is something I’ve tried to write about for a long time, before I’d even started that story. I had never found a home for that prose. When I was in Rome, I went to the Palazzo Massimo Museum, this museum of antiquities, and one of the things they have there is the Portonaccio Sarcophagus. It’s this really elaborate, beautifully detailed relief of a Roman army addling barbarians on the front, and above it are a series of domestic vignettes. Equally detailed, but the figures’ faces have not been finished, so they have these smooth ovals of marble that have not been cut. I was really struck by it when I saw it in person, and started researching it to figure out who this sarcophagus had been intended for and why the faces were left unfinished. When I was thinking about the phenomenon of effacement or facelessness, my thoughts made their way back to this photograph of my mother, where on the Grim Reaper, you just see this whirl of spooky numinous blue light where his face should be. So facelessness became the vector by which to connect my memories of that photograph to the sarcophagus I was fascinated by, which then became the narrator’s fascination.
You brought up “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel” before, where we have this narrator procrastinating, dreaming up scenarios where he’s denied entry only because he neglected to read anything by this one philosopher. As a writer, I thought the inspiration could’ve been feelings of not being good enough, or doubting one’s own work.
That’s exactly right. The seed of that story was one sentence in particular, where I was thinking about the motivational properties of self-hatred, where you think, ‘I haven’t read X, therefore I’m an impostor and other people will know. So I’ll redirect that hatred towards myself, until and unless I read X.’ Then you’re motivated to read this thing that you might not actually enjoy, but the feelings of inferiority are enough to make you finish. This is a story that began ten years ago with the line ‘That was the philosophy that fueled his reading, not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of hatred.’ It took me a long time to build a story around that sentence. I was thinking about who the character who thought that sentence and what is the book they want to read, and why they want to read it. Writing about a writer who is self-sabotaging through procrastination, before embarking on this impossible intellectual project is this narrative trope that I borrow from Bernhard, because he often writes these neurotic, intellectual characters that have a big life project that they can’t start until they’ve arrived at the perfect conditions.
In a shorter story, two characters are exploring a mausoleum when you write this really striking image of an ant wandering around in the engraving of a tombstone, having no idea it’s a part of something greater with meaning it can never understand. What did that visual, and story, mean for you?
That’s another story I wrote in Rome, where the academy took the fellows on a field trip to Sicily and one of the last things they brought us to was a piece of land art, an installation that was commemorating an earthquake. A lot of the description is in the story, in a piece called “The Great Crack.” It’s a labyrinthian maze of white blocks that reproduce the layout and streets and alleys that had been leveled by an earthquake. It’s sort of like the ghost of a city you’re wandering through. The story is about premonitions of death — the characters who enter have earlier in the story been granted visions of wandering around in mazes as an image of death, so when they arrive, they recognize it and get this chill of the uncanny. But it’s not something they can recognize until they’re above it — when they’re wandering around inside, they have to be up on the viewing platform and looking down to see the linework. It’s kind of a story about scale, needing to be above or outside of something to recognize it. That image of the ant wandering around the letters of an epitaph not knowing it’s tracing a dead name is the point of view character’s comparison for himself when he’s inside the labyrinth, that he’s being routed through these different lines, the meaning is obscured to him, and he feels like this ant. Only when he’s above it can he recognize what this land art is spelling, the signature of the earthquake.
Ironically, I think my favorite story might be the least descriptive of them all. In “The Postcard”, an investigator travels to a lonely, hazy town named Ocean View in order to solve a mystery a client has set him on. He meets an apathetic hotel manager, ventures to a facility that’s either a hospital or prison, and engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the person who is tormenting his client. What was the writing process for this one like, and where did the idea for it come from?
That story is an homage to the horror game Silent Hill 2, which begins with the player’s character receiving a letter from his dead wife inviting him back to Silent Hill, the site of their honeymoon. She says, ‘I’m waiting for you there,’ even though she’s been dead a while before the game begins, and the player goes to Silent Hill to see who has sent the letter. He discovers this foggy, abandoned town that obeys the logic of this anxiety dream. The landscape is shifting and variable and nightmarish and reorganizes itself around you as you try to get through the town to see who sent the letter. I was always really interested in that landscape and that trope, of the impossible posthumous letter inviting you to a destination where you’re always already too late. I borrowed that and the setting, so that’s where the idea came from. I was also thinking about this book by [Jacques] Derrida called The Post Card, which I tried to channel throughout. Derrida is interested in postcards because they trouble the distinction between public and private — you write a personal message on them but anyone can read it because it’s not in an envelope. A lot of his riffs on postcards are some I try to ventriloquize through the narrator as he’s thinking about what postcards are.
This story and “Unknown” are really excellent in these slowburn, psychological thriller pieces that rely on unsettling horror. Whereas the story after “Unknown”, “Pecking Order”, is this really gruesome but terribly funny piece about murdering a menace chicken. Which type of horror is harder for you, and which do you think you enjoy more?
For me, what’s difficult about any kind of writing is determining what the stylistic bandwidth or spectrum of the story will be, and being constrained by that decision. “Unknown” is written in a very spare, obsessive prose style — it has pretty simple nondescript neutral sentences as this very paranoid character tries to figure out who is leaving menacing voice messages and calling from an unknown number. The spareness of the prose is what leads to the obsessive atmosphere of the story, because he’s trying to reason his way through all the possible outcomes. Not a lot is happening in the story, but that constraint is perversely difficult — the fact that I can’t just write long, lush descriptions of the narrator’s apartment or his drive to the wall. Being forced to commit myself to that voice and that spareness becomes a difficulty in its own right.
“Pecking Order,” stylistically, is a very different story — it’s about a character beheading a chicken in his backyard, and the prose is a lot more descriptive and grotesque. The sentences are harder to write, but formally, there’s no atmospheric difficulty. The bandwidth is broader, and you can fit more into it. I can be grotesque, funny, or comic, and I’m drawing on different writers with that story: Nicholson Baker, Patricia Highsmith, who has this one book of fables where animals kill humans. Atmospherically, formally, I felt less constrained to the type of sentences available to me.
I really enjoyed how, in “Minds of Winter,” you have this thought comparing snow on top of tree branches to cake frosting, then realize that’s legitimately the etymology of words like ‘icing’ or ‘frosting’: a couple hundred years ago a baker looked out a different window and had the same thought, which kind of links your brains together across time. This, for me, really sums up the idea of ‘other minds’ you were getting at: sometimes, we try so hard and so fruitlessly to know what someone else is thinking, and elsewhere, like in this example, we just stumble upon the exact configuration of thought process by a complete accident.
I love that observation. The sentence I read earlier that occurs in two stories — “All his life, if you asked him why he read, he would’ve said he was curious about other minds” — unironically, that is why I read. I’m curious how other writers see the world, they defamiliarize or estrange the world. Sometimes, there is this real pleasure of recognition when I come across a description of another writer and I see that they saw something the same way as me. There’s this kind of harmony between our minds, which can bridge time, language, identity, and so on. You can be reading something published a thousand years ago on another continent and have this sense of recognition that I find really exhilarating.
Finally, what’s next for you? Do you think you’ll stay with short story collections or write another novel?
I always have Word documents I’m stirring the pot of, I always tell myself I’ll never write stories again, because I find them so challenging, but it is a rewarding challenge, so I’ll probably keep writing in the short form. Hopefully one of those stirred pots will boil over to become a novel-length fiction as well.
Other Minds and Other Stories is out now.