Interview: Weird Dream Society

Weird Dream Society is an anthology of weird, dark stories put together by editor-in-chief Julie C. Day and co-editors Carina Bissett and Chip Houser. It’s due out May 26th; preorders are available now. All proceeds go to benefit RAICES, the Texas org dedicated to defending immigrant children, families and refugees. Reckoning Press is acting as a parent press and nonprofit umbrella. (And I also contributed a story.) So I was lucky enough to get the editors together virtually, along with social media coordinator Steve Toase, to answer some questions about the intersection of literature and activism.


Michael: Why an anthology of weird fiction to benefit RAICES? Do you see an inherent connection between the weird and immigration justice, or is it about doing something you love to help a cause you care about, or both?


Julie: I’m tempted to give a blanket yes and be done with it. But this is a yes with perspectives and layers. A yes to both questions. I love fiction that sings at the line level, that surprises emotionally, that carries nuance and the unsettling sense that nothing is simple and everything—even what we consider positive outcomes—comes at a cost. So, yes, bringing this sort of fiction to the fore and mixing my interests with this project made sense. This book is very much a labor of love.

I also think that a specific sort of strange fiction—the moniker others apply to the stories I write and to the stories that I’m often drawn to—is all about inhabiting what we considered the everyday world, but with the perspective so skewed it feels alien, like an entirely different land. Using fiction to pull us into a place where we can actually connect and empathize with experiences unknown to us in real life is the gift of such fiction.

In general, genre performs such a function well. There are markers of class, accepted logic trees, gender, sexuality, romance, and all the rest, that we recognize no matter what the setting. In fact, genre is often the most powerful lens to examine our cultural and personal assumptions by overlaying them—in some way—on another setting. But this sense of otherness I’m most especially drawn to—that goes a step further. It bypasses the analytical brain and taps into our emotional memories.

Jenefer Robinson in her book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and it’s Role in Literature, Music, and Art discusses two different pathways in the brain: declarative memory and emotional memory. Well have emotional responses that bypass the cognitive process, what we call gut responses. This emotional response is based on a type of scenario/set of learned stimuli with no conscious memory attached. We layer the reasons on after the fact. This is why logical arguments don’t sway people’s opinions, but rather entrench them further. Logic doesn’t address the emotion-learned stimuli connection.

Strange or weird fiction with its visceral emotional hooks and dream logic connects directly with our emotional realities.

We are at our core ruled by emotional responses—attempts at logic don’t change minds—experiences expand understanding. And fiction, strange and unexpected fiction, when successful, takes a reader on an emotional and hopefully mind-expanding journey. It’s why strange fiction is naturally drawn to inequities of power in all its forms. It plays with our emotional patterning. What makes it magic is that it’s not a type of moral fiction; it’s not trying to teach a lesson. Instead, it simply lays out personal situations in a way that makes it able to expand or adjust the patterns our emotional memory relies on.


Carina: Weird fiction often exists in a dream space. By viewing social justice through a speculative lens, writers can explore multiple facets of the issues at hand. It also creates interstitial pathways to new experiences without the need to follow the rigid structure so often imposed in more traditional formats. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the elegant lyricism and amorphous nature so often prevalent in strange fiction. The connection to poetry is intentional; it opens opportunities for an emotional experience through the play of language. The stories in this anthology connect in a fluid and unnerving way. Rarely do they spell out a specific argument, yet they link to endless possibilities of the ways we can challenge the inequalities that surround us.


Chip: At the moment, the United States is far weirder than the fiction in this anthology. That we’ve been able to focus our attention on something positive, something to benefit those who are in desperate need of just a modest fraction of the attention being commandeered by a certain limelight-mongering politician, has been a much-needed reprieve.


Steve: As someone who is an immigrant to another country, (although I’m in a very privileged position) the experience is often surreal and can be unsettling, especially as you try to grasp language and social conventions. This creates situations that definitely feel weird, and highlight the weird of everyday life.


Michael: How do you see the interplay between art and activism? In these astonishingly fast-changing and accompanyingly terrifying times, I’ve felt a strong temptation to give up writing fiction and go chain myself to an old-growth tree under threat by a saw, or to some train tracks where fossil fuels pass through sovereign Indigenous lands, or etc. I’ve felt, and thus far resisted, the temptation to shutter Reckoning and donate its whole budget to RAICES or Sunrise Movement or the SPLC. Helping support Weird Dream Society has played a significant part in helping mitigate that feeling—thank you very much for doing this! Any other words of support for people choosing to make art in these hard times?


Julie: Can I just say, see my answer above? No? Okay. Michael, we need to engage with life and with our selves. We get a short span of years and if we’re very lucky we find passions that give it meaning. Creativity isn’t an indulgence. It’s the way in which the world turns and transforms into something better and new. Or doesn’t. But at least you tried and you fought and you did some good just by trying. Reckoning and this project will speak to people in a different way than if you chained yourself to a tree—though both definitely have their place. Which I guess means I’m suggesting you add tree-chaining alongside publishing, rather than choose one over the other….


Carina: In my role as an educator, I emphasize the connection between art and activism on a regular basis. There is a rich history of the ways protest art and music have changed the world. I believe that art and activism are intrinsically linked. I can’t speak for other authors, but every story I’ve ever written has some aspect of protest in it. Some of these might be more personal than others, but my stories are always about exploring the ways in which the world can be changed. How do we stop the prevalence of domestic violence? How do we challenge cultural norms that dismiss the needs of our most vulnerable populations? How do we shift societal values from cultural consumption and materialism to interpersonal relationships and a sense of community? Art challenges these ideals in ways that other forms of rhetoric often fail, and I think that’s because art opens avenues of emotion. What is more persuasive than that?


Chip: Your support has been essential for this anthology, which illustrates the effective interplay of art and activism. For me, this anthology seemed like the perfect way to help do some real good in the world and give a little scratch to the creative itch as well.


Steve: I was kicked out of home at 16, spending three years either No Fixed Abode or vulnerably housed. In 2016 I was lead writer (alongside Becky Cherriman who has also experienced homelessness, and Imove Arts) on a project called Haunt, working in my hometown to highlight hidden homelessness. We started by working with people experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories, put that work in an anthology, and finally brought the stories together into a promenade theatre performance. What that taught me about art and activism is art is incredibly effective at disruption. By disrupting people’s everyday routine, it’s possible to bring their attention to situations their eyes would normally glance over. Art can humanise, and art can enlighten; even if just seeing ‘RAICES’ brings someone to google the term, it disrupts their day and gives some time to a perspective they may not have acknowledged otherwise.


Michael: You’re the Weird Dream Society. I love weird dreams! I practiced lucid dreaming for awhile, and my story in the anthology is based on a dream I had. So: pitch me a dream you’ve had, if you were to turn it into a story? Bonus points if it has an immigrant justice angle!


Julie: I rarely remember my dreams. And when I do they quickly slip away and all that’s left is my partner’s expression of bemusement after I’ve finished describing what has been going on in my mind. However, daydreams are an entirely different type of story. I have all sorts, some of which are moments I relive again and again. They all seem to include worldbuilding. Something I hadn’t considered until just now. Huh…. Some of these worlds have been with me for decades, along with some of the versions of “me.” There are a couple of soft-science-based portal daydreams. At least one is centered on a city populated by people displaced via such portals who then have to deal with a system in which they 1) have no power and 2) are seen as no more important than the service they provide. Plus a sky city. It has that as well. I guess a number of my daydreams are rather classic sf!


“The Flayed Angel” is an anatomical drawing (1746) from Myologie complete en couleur et grandeur naturelle by Jacques Gautier d’Agoty.

Carina: Next to reading and writing, my favorite activity is sleeping. I tend to have vivid dreams, and they often play out in a serial manner. For me, dreaming is a lot like binge-watching on Netflix. I love it. My brain usually plays out whatever story I might be working on at the time. It’s a way for my creative self to fill in plot holes, develop characters, and examine themes. Right now, I’m working on a novel, so my dreams are deeply rooted in that world. However, if I go back to an unconnected dream, the most recent one in my journal was about a haunted library filled with books bound in human skin. I tend to get riled up when I read about historical accounts of women locked up in insane asylums, and even angrier when I think about how the flayed skin of some of these discarded women were used to create covers for books written by male medical professionals. No immigrant justice angel in this one, but there is definitely a pissed off ghost involved and quite possibly an incident involving spontaneous combustion.


Chip: Well, there’s another reason to be jealous of the fertile mind of Carina! Like Julie, I’m not gifted with dream memories—maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the stories in this anthology. I love that Amanda Invades the Museum is based on a dream, it definitely channels the peculiarity and vividness unique to dream logic. It hadn’t occurred to me before in this way, but I’m sure all of the stories in the collection have dream fragments woven into them.


Steve: I used to have a lot of ‘waking dreams’ where I woke up during the night to see faceless figures standing in the room, which would be terrifying until I became aware enough for them to fade. While this hasn’t led to a single story, it’s definitely influenced the sense of something just out of sight in our world. I think it encapsulates the lack of security both people experiencing homelessness and immigrants feel; the sense that someone can appear at any hour of the day and any vague sense of safety will be lost in a moment.


Michael: Thank you all very much for these profound thoughts, it’s been a pleasure!