Where fitness and horror and the horror of fitness collide: Charles Austin Muir
Charles Austin Muir is an Oregonian who makes his home in the city that likes to keep things weird. Which is rather apropos for this author who prefers his fiction the same.
Muir put his English degree to good use first as a journalist at a major national newspaper and then later as an author of short horror. He’s now come full circle and writes about what many consider the greatest of all horrors: fitness.
His imaginative tales explore the dark corners of the humanity: from shadowy government conspiracies to maniacal truckers to the evils of the human mind. Muir gives us the scoop on his plans to venture into longer fiction, tells us the best and worst advice he has received, and explains his own personal magick and the power of sigils.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): Your fiction career thus far has been focused on short fiction, and you’ve been published in some impressive venues. Are there any plans to write a longer-length work, perhaps a novella or novel?
Charles Austin Muir (CAM): I feel I’ve had some luck with where I’ve been published the last few years. I’ve closed my eyes, thrown a few darts and hit some bull’s-eyes. The bull’s-eyes were publishers with a strong brand and a commitment to helping writers like me perfect their story for the market. Maybe this sounds like a lapse in integrity on my part, but I don’t always have the best sense for a story’s center of gravity after I’ve gone so many rounds with it. Working with editors who know exactly what they want has helped me push further or ease up on certain aspects, like the level of violence or the density of language. But now that I’ve finally let go of imitating certain authors, I feel I’m coming into my own sense of how a story should be told and what kind of story I want to tell. Which is the long way around to saying, yes, I do have plans for a novel now!
It would be about Clay Haller, the main character in a short story I wrote for an anthology called 18 Wheels of Horror. Haller is a long-haul trucker who rides the highways maiming and murdering bad men to purge his nightmares of being raped as a child. He shoots like Travis Bickle, fights like Chuck Norris and gets his strength from an occult steroid that makes him the Ivan Drago of vigilantes. And he looks like Jim Carrey. That, I think, opens up some comic relief for a longer work that will probably be very gory and nihilistic. Jim Carrey running you down in an 18-wheeler—smokin’!
GMP: You’ve gone outside horror and ventured to the other side as a journalist, currently writing a column on fitness and health for The Oregonian. What are the challenges in changing up your writing style as you move between fiction and non-fiction? Do you find both forms of writing to be equally satisfying?
CAM: So I was a staffer for The Oregonian before I became a freelancer. Among the items I produced for the newspaper were obituaries and bad jokes for a humor column. On my last day in the newsroom, an editor hired me to revive “My Workout,” a popular column that had fallen from use in the health section. I found out I’m not prolific with it. After two years I still struggle with a fiction writer’s urge to weight the facts in favor of a theme I want to develop. I do several rounds of self-editing to make sure I represent my subjects accurately.
On the other hand, switching between fiction and non-fiction allows me to explore my dual nature (I am a Gemini). I’m very positive with the column. I write about local people whose fitness journeys inspire me. I’m not interested in their athletic ability so much as how they maintain a vital and compassionate movement practice. I look at how they embody the idea of taking one more step, out of love and respect for themselves and others. This theme was beautifully expressed in the movie Creed. In “My Workout,” I’m telling my own nonviolent Creed stories.
Last summer I realized something else about them as well. The voice I used, the underlying message, these emerged because I was writing, in a way, to my mom. The column had become a sort of ongoing letter to her. Through my subjects, I was telling her to take one step at a time for a longer, happier life. My mom ignored my sneaky homilies. She didn’t read the column, even though she would clip the articles and save them for me. She has since passed away, but I continue to write “My Workout” as a kind of wish for her. That’s the believer side of me. “Don’t Stop Believin’”—both a core value of mine and an overdone karaoke song.
But back to the dual nature thing. If my positive side is rah-rah Steve Perry, my negative side is a song by Hatebreed or Slipknot. Or the narrator in possibly my all-time favorite novel, Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Throughout, the narrator rants about how wretched life is and how rotten people are. He’s a war veteran, medical doctor and rotten person himself and knows his stuff. He also knows that his disgust has mutated into a kind of mania, that his head is full of foul, contemptible phantoms. I’m like him when I’m writing dark fiction. I tap into a part of me that hates people and life with a skewed sense of heroism. It helps me work out the Céline sickness in me, at the same time realizing how ugly I can get wanting the world to be nicer.
The great thing about switching between these two forms of writing is that I gain a little space from my obsessions. I get to be like Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket. I’m saying “peace” in one kind of story and “born to kill” in another. I’m expressing something about the duality of man—at least the one in my mirror. But all that said, I try not to take myself too seriously. I know I’m not shaking the pillars of journalism or literature. I write stories about real people exercising and imaginary people fighting the bogeyman. Maybe I should write a story about a bogeyman who does Pilates.
GMP: Tell us both the best and worst advice you have ever received.
CAM: My favorite (though maybe not the best) advice came from my dad when I was hitting puberty. He said, “Son, there are two kinds of guys in this world. One plays sports, and the other sits around at the pool all day talking to girls. Don’t be the guy at the pool.”
Along those lines I’d say the worst advice I ever received came from the big screen. Now celebrating thirty years of miseducating young men in the art of courtship, Top Gun turned me into the sort of creeper you wouldn’t want hanging around the pool. I thought that by bugging my eyes at a girl for long periods and speaking to her just above a whisper, I was bound to melt her defenses. Maverick’s moves didn’t translate well for a skinny, 14-year-old Asian kid with a Beatles mop top and Velcro shoes.
GMP: Readers will come across some strange symbols in your story “Party Monster,” featured in the Grey Matter Press anthology Peel Back the Skin. We wonder how you came up with the idea to weave sigils throughout the story, and what was your process in creating the visual elements?
CAM: I don’t remember how I thought of incorporating sigils. But I knew they would be a cool way to break up text and hopefully hook readers. I drew them all at once between the first and second drafts. I followed instructions from a Wiki article. First, I made a “focus area” at my writing desk. Then I wrote statements expressing my main character’s intentions—“It is my will to escape,” for example. After that I went through each statement, crossed out the vowels and repeated letters and drew the remaining letters in an unrecognizable pattern. Each pattern became a sigil—an abstract symbol linked to a desire for a specific outcome.
The final sigil isn’t in the story. After I sent off “Party Monster,” I wrote down this statement: “It is my will to get into the “monsters” anthology by Grey Matter Press.” I then created a sigil for it, but took the process a step further. For a real-life sigil to work you have to charge it through an intense ritual. Some burn the sigil, some meditate, some assume “the death posture.” You don’t want to know what method I used…
GMP: If you could be any literary fictional character, who would you choose, and why?
CAM: Back to my positive side, I would choose Jay Gatsby. I want to walk out at night and stare at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. But I’m revising The Great Gatsby’s symbolism. In my version, the green light represents the mystery of the cosmos, the idea that life and intelligence are continuing on around billions and billions of stars and we’re all inter-existing with each other in time and space. F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Carl Sagan and Thich Nhat Hanh.
But my negative side wants to be the ghost in Edith Wharton’s story, “The Eyes.” I wouldn’t even be a face, just two spectral, unblinking eyes. Red lids, sunken orbits, like a floating cut-out of John Hurt visually undressing you from the foot of your bed. Like a zombie Norman Bates spying on you through a hole in the wall but without any wall. You turn on the light and I’m gone, but drift off again and I’m back, making you feel like you’re being molested by the evil spirit-eyes of Elric of Melniboné. You’ll never have a good night’s sleep again.
Cue Vincent Price laugh…
GMP: Are you currently working on any fiction that you can tell us about?
CAM: I am. A collection of short stories. I’m to the point where I would like some of the short fiction I’ve got floating around out there to be parked in one spot. If the book were a place I’d want this to be a Rod Serling homeless camp filled with mutants, maniacs and lost souls. So far I’ve got stories about flying crematoria, creatures who eat playgrounds, deranged Russian-roulette athletes and the inhabitants of a stained-glass window fighting for alpha male status. I’d also like to include my story “Thanatos Park,” which first appeared in Grey Matter Press’s Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror—Volume One (if you’ll let me, of course—maybe I should check my contract first!).
Being included in Peel Back the Skin, I feel like the guy who snuck onstage at Live Aid during the “We Are the World” finale. I’m singing along next to Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. The author lineup is so impressive that I don’t want to single anyone out. So thank you, Grey Matter Press, for letting me be on this stage and even giving me a spot to ramble here.
Now I’m off to create another sigil.
It is my will…
TO BE CONTINUED