The multi-hyphenate Clay McLeod Chapman, who in his creative career has added short story writer/novelist/playwright/screenwriter/Amazing Spider-Man comic book writer to his resume, returns today to his native Richmond.
He’s stopping in as part of the Virginia Literary Festival to give readings of his original work at a venue appropriate to Chapman’s oeuvre: the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. He’ll be presenting beginning at 6 p.m. in the courtyard Enchanted Garden. And you can’t get much more atmospheric than that.
Clay McLeod Chapman
Chapman often writes in the first person, and his narrators tell bizarre stories from, at first, an apparently reasonable viewpoint — just as Poe did in such narratives as "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado" and the creepy, but not occult, "The Man In The Crowd." Chapman sets his stories in the world we live in to evoke what’s best described by an antient word — eldritch sensations.
“The whole idea is to create a gradual rising level of anxiety,” he says. “It's about mood, something Gothic; it’s hard to do, but when done well, it’s a blast.”
I caught up to him between his son’s nap time and his work on the final volume of the Tribe trilogy, which takes the struggle to survive middle school to a different Lord of the Flies level.
What he’ll read this evening depends, in part, on who shows up.
“My hope is to reads some Poe-esque stories,” he says. “If I look at the audience and there’s nobody under age 13, then I’ll read some spooky stories for the bigger kids.“
It’s been years since he’s been in Richmond for an event not related to The Tribe or his Pumpkin Pie storytelling performance. “When there’s nothing much else going, I write these stories, the kinds of pieces you’d find in Rest Area," his 2002 short story collection. “These monologues where the narrator says, 'I’m totally healthy, let me tell you how healthy I am,’ and then gradually the person reveals they’re totally insane.” And that can break a few ways: into fear or sadness or both.
Chapman explains, “It’s about giving the reader or listener a sense of unease; Poe did that quite well, and Ambrose Bierce, but a fellow named Algernon Blackwood — a precursor to good old H.P. Lovecraft — he was a master.” Blackwood sounds made up, but the prolific ghost- and weird-fiction writer was quite real and remains influential.
For this evening's show, he'll cherry-pick stories from the past five years and may choose to try out something new and use those gathered as a test audience.
After this Poe Museum gig, Chapman hops back on the train to return to New York to prepare for the upcoming Pumpkin Pie Show. This edition, titled Seasick, concerns odd doings aboard a cruise ship. Time Out: New York picked it as one of the top events for the city’s Halloween season.
He’s finishing that latest Tribe manuscript and a full length feature film, The Boy — based on an earlier short, Henley, by Chapman and director Craig Mcneill, is nearing post-production following its shoot in Colombia – that’s the South American country, not the troubled town near Scottsville. He returns Nov. 14-15, for a Pumpkin Pie performance, in collaboration with the Modlin Center for the Arts and the 5th Wall Theatre at the Theatre Gym of Virginia Rep. (Full disclosure: I’m on 5th Wall’s board). He’ll be in L.A. and Brooklyn, too, among other places.
“This is the season for me,” he says. “I get these kinds of months, around Halloween, and it doesn’t stop.”
I wondered if his being married and a parent has ramped up the scary factor in his fiction. That is, one needs only to glance at a newspaper or online news digest to see that the very real world is certifiably nuts.
“It remains to be seen,” he says, thoughtful. “I’m afraid of more things now, which I think that definitely holds its own currency. The world is a more frightening place when there’s someone you have to provide for and protect.”
'Tis the season for events at the Poe, too, set around and on Halloween, including an Oct. 23 "Unhappy Hour," themed after the "The Facts In The Case of M. Valdemar," a Price movie of a Poe story and a cuisine-related occasion, both hosted by Price's daughter, Victoria.
Thus, you have plenty of reasons to go to the Poe.