Editor Spotlight: Interview with Erica Ciko Campbell and Desmond Rhae Harris of Starward Shadows Quarterly

We’re interested in exploring the wicked, strange places that walk the line between reality and nightmare—the alien, the absurd, and above all else, the weird.—Starward Shadows Quarterly Submissions page

In order for more diverse voices in cosmic horror, weird fiction, and Lovecraftian fiction to be published, there needs to be venues to publish those new voices. Starward Shadows Quarterly published their first issue in Fall 2021. Editor-in-Chief Erica Ciko Campbell and Associate Editor/Designer & Illustrator Desmond Rhae Harris have brought their own aesthetic and appreciation for weird fiction, sword & sorcery, fantasy, & science fiction to their endeavor, and have been kind enough to answer a few questions.

How did you get into H. P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror?

Erica Ciko Campbell: I actually started writing what I would consider very “soft” cosmic horror all the way back when I was 12 with other kids on roleplay forums online. I didn’t even realize it fell into the genre at the time, but I gravitated towards themes of the insignificance of mankind in a vast and chaotic multiverse, and my characters were almost always aliens. Since I felt like an outsider all my life, it may sound cliché, but I was really just writing about what I felt like inside—but on a cosmic scale.

As far as my introduction the immortal master of cosmic horror himself: In 10th grade, I was “loaned” a copy of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, a collection of many of Lovecraft’s greatest stories such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark.” From the moment I opened it for the very first time, I was awestruck. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered someone who wrote stuff that touched on the same themes I was interested in. I’m pretty sure I read the entire thing in a couple of afternoons, in those little storage cubbies beneath the desks so the teachers wouldn’t catch me during class. From then on, I always said that Lovecraft was my favorite author of all time and space.

Desmond Rhae Harris: I actually first heard of H. P. Lovecraft when I was a teenager and saw him referenced in a “Necronomicon” that somehow made its way into the occult section in a bookstore. I cracked it open and the descriptions of Nyarlathotep sparked a strong interest in the real stories from Lovecraft himself.

…And, since my earliest memories, I stared up into the black nighttime shadows at the treeline and lost myself in the sight of the starry sky or the moon anytime I got the chance. The pale taste of space that you can get from Earth filled my guts with a deep hollowness at the uncertainty of what was out there and where everything I knew stood in comparison to the rest of the universe. It terrified me at times, so the later discovery of cosmic horror as experienced by others was extremely cathartic and held a very strong draw.

Do you feel that your gender and sexuality have shaped your understanding of Lovecraft and your approach to Lovecraftian fiction?

DRH: I do feel that way: my confusion about my sexuality and identity when I was younger made me notice how narrow of a range of demographics appeared in works from authors like Lovecraft. This struggle to find an ideal character to identify with led me to seek out more representation in literature later on.

There are so many people at all age ranges who might be more able to accept themselves for who they are if they can see demonstrations of people like them finding their place in the world. So, while I still read and enjoy H. P. Lovecraft’s work, I am acutely aware of which demographics he pays attention to (or doesn’t) and how he portrays them. And, I look for opportunities to be more inclusive while still preserving the essence of cosmic horror that Lovecraft gave us—after all, the broader the lens through which we view cosmic horror, the more complex and astonishing it can be.

ECC: When I write, I usually don’t put major emphasis on gender, orientation, etc. unless it’s a key point in the story. So I end up with a lot of Lovecraftian stories/cosmic horror with LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters, but I wouldn’t say I make any special effort to do this: I just enjoy writing these types of characters and feel that I (and also, inadvertently, my audience) can identify with them more.

I can’t help but feel a bit excited to live in a time when every single character no longer reads as the exact same thirty-something white guy. Even as a kid I was kind of critical of this element of Lovecraft’s stories and noticed the lack of diversity: and this was before it was a hot button issue on the internet. To be blunt, I find it boring. So I would say that as an editor, I’m especially excited to see Lovecraftian submissions from female/LGBTQ/BIPOC authors, featuring characters that fall into these demographics as well (If you want a great example, you should check out The Book of Fthagn by Jamie Lackey in our first issue.) That’s not to say that I’ll pass over a story just because the author doesn’t fall into one of these demographics, of course.

What made you want to create your own ezine for cosmic horror?

ECC: I’ve always been a “lone wolf” and liked doing my own thing. If I don’t like the way other people do things, I start my own project instead. There aren’t many magazines out there publishing the same type of stuff that we intend to: New Weird, S&S, and Cyberpunk don’t often cross paths in the same publication, at least as far as I’ve seen. I wanted to create a magazine that contains the exact mix of stories that I’ve always wanted to read, because there weren’t any.

Also, I spent so much time submitting stories to magazines over the past few years that I started to wonder what it felt like to run one. I think it’s really easy for authors to put a lot of pressure on editors and to judge them (I know I’m guilty of it myself)—so I figured the best way to get a true understanding of what goes on “on the inside” was to start my own magazine and see with my own eyes.

I worked for two other magazines before starting SSQ, but I’ve never been good at taking instructions from others. I quit Novel Noctule because of this. I still read for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores sometimes, but I’m not involved in the internal workings of the editorial process at all, so it’s a totally different experience.

DRH: The most concise way that I can put it is: inspiration. Whenever I look at other ezines, I enjoy them for what they are but they also spark all kinds of ideas. What I could do differently, what I could explore next, what doors I could open, what unseen groups I could highlight. In the end, I can only tolerate so much inspiration before I have to make something out of it.

What do you want to achieve with Starward Shadows Quarterly?

ECC: This one is actually pretty simple: I want to create a place where readers can go for a while where they don’t really have to think about the problems of Earth, and where they can feel free to explore hidden worlds and fantastical ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. I guess you could call it a sanctuary for all true lovers of darkness, where they don’t need to feel choked by the chains of society, and both dreams and delusions have new meaning. That’s not to say that we’ll be avoiding Earth-based stories entirely. With ones like Angel Teeth, you can’t help but stare the ugliness of our human reality dead in the eyes and smile at it.

DRH: I want people of all types to feel welcomed by every issue that we publish. I want to seek out diamonds in the rough that might otherwise have gone unpublished because of either a lack of credentials or a “touchy” demographic, because I know how it feels to be glossed over.

Aside from Lovecraft, other thematic inspirations cited for Starward Shadows Quarterly include J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. How do you handle the historical racism and colonialist tropes inherent in fantasy and sword & sorcery?

DRH: This is a tricky topic. The best I can explain it is that we always look for ways to bring fresh, modern insight on those topics, and we deliberately seek out authors who provide that. If a story doesn’t have a new, enlightened viewpoint that shatters racism and colonialism and instead falls back on addressing those grief-ridden topics in the same, tired, old ways, then we simply won’t publish the story—no matter how good it is otherwise. It isn’t enough for something to be “not that problematic.” It needs to actively counteract the social impact that previous authors have had in these difficult areas in order for us to accept it.

ECC: Like Desmond said, this is a tricky question. Personally, I believe it’s possible to write stories in both these genres that avoid these tropes entirely. In these genres there’s always going to be “the oppressed,” and then you’re going to have “the oppressors”, or you wouldn’t have much of a story: But in my opinion, the old archetypes don’t have to be carved in stone. Stories can be written from different perspectives that were unheard of back in the old days. The background characters of the past can become the heroes (or, if I’m writing it, the anti-heroes) of the future. Even if you tear down the metaphorical statues built by the founders that are tainted with archaic viewpoints and toxic worldviews, you’re left with some pretty good building blocks. It’s up to us to decide what to do with them.

Do you feel writers like Lovecraft, Tolkien, & Howard still resonate with contemporary audiences?

ECC: Oh yes, definitely. In certain corners of the internet, it seems like there’s a subset of people that latch onto one of these authors and worship them almost religiously. Everything they write seems to be an emulation. I think that thanks to mass-printed paperbacks and the unprecedented ability of the internet to spread weird fiction far and wide, these guys have more fans than ever. And many of them don’t even know or care about what the authors were like as people, and get swept away by “fandoms.”

For example, there are tons of people who aren’t aware of Lovecraft’s problematic outlook/history at all. Kind of hard to miss, if you paid attention to the stories… But perhaps they haven’t read them all. Either that, or they choose to ignore them because A) they don’t care or B) they feel the art is the only thing that matters.

On a purely thematic basis, all controversy aside: fads may come and go in the literary world, and the favor of society may shift, but the true masters will reign forever. And even if their names were erased from history, they inspired so many countless authors that they’re burned into the literary world for as long as it exists.

DRH: Absolutely! Classics are classics, after all. And, while our values as a society might have shifted over the course of time, I see no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak: I feel that we should always look for areas where we could do better, but always maintain respect for those who paved the way for us and continue to harvest inspiration from their skills so that we can give new values a timeless voice.

In fact, it’s imperative that we bridge the gap between “old and new” speculative fiction by blending modern insights with creativity and intricacy that has already withstood the test of time. By doing so, we might bridge the gap between different readers as well, and help them understand each other better.

Do you think it is important for weird fiction and fantasy to escape the shadow of Lovecraft & Tolkien? Do you think that is even possible?

DRH: One could argue that, by standing on the shoulders of giants, they might leap to a new mountain entirely—but they’re still highly unlikely to forget the giants that helped them get there. As I’m sure you gathered from my previous responses, I’m not personally concerned with escaping the shadows of previous masters or reinventing the wheel: I just want each new take on speculative fiction to bring in something fresh enough to require a good deal of active, analytical thought to trace it back to Lovecraft and Tolkien—because that means that it took a lot of active thought and creativity for the author to write the piece in the first place.

By the same coin, I think pieces that directly reference previous icons in a tongue-in-cheek manner have their own merits by playing off of something familiar and almost “breaking the fourth wall” in a sense. It’s not quite satire, but it’s not mere fanfiction either. There’s a delicate balance to be struck there, and a few people do it just right.

Another inspiration you cite is Tamsyn Muir. Are there other women/LGBTQ+ authors whose weird work you find inspirational? Any favorites?

ECC: When I was a child, I absolutely adored A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, along with all its sequels. I think these were actually my first real foray into true, far-out science fiction. I had a little Evangelion notebook where I wrote down all the poems from one of the sequel books… The one about the mitochondria. I can’t even remember the name anymore. [A Wind in the Door (1973)] Sadly, aside from Ursula K. Le Guin, no one else is really popping out in my mind. I’m not sure if this speaks to the lack of diversity in the genre, or my lack of adventurism as a reader!

DRH: I personally really like the work of C. S. Friedman, particularly Black Sun Rising.

Besides specific authors, are there any specific anthologies, ezines, magazines, or films that have inspired Starward Shadows Quarterly?

ECC: Films have actually been a massive inspiration for me over the years, arguably moreso than literature. Growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with A Clockwork Orange, Pink Floyd: The Wall, and Natural Born Killers, just to name a few. I was also a huge anime fan in my youth, and I can practically recite the entire Neon Genesis Evangelion series by heart at this point. On the Science Fiction end of things, Outlaw Star was also one of my greatest inspirations of all time and space.

Video games have been another massive inspiration for me over the years. While we were in the process of creating the magazine, I was (and still am) obsessively playing through the entire Dark Souls series. I’m awestruck with what a wonderful job the developers did at creating a bleak and sorrowful world that still somehow manages to inspire the slightest bit of hope in the end. One thing that absolutely captivates me about Dark Souls is what a great metaphor it is for depression and other mental illnesses. No matter how many times you lose and get beaten to a pulp, eventually you overcome it, and life (or undeath, in this case, I suppose) goes on.

As far as other magazines, I really admire the design and setup of both Vastarien and Cosmic Horror Monthly. I also worked for a New Weird magazine called Novel Noctule for a time, and admittedly, what I learned there inspired our “behind the scenes” processes a great deal.

DRH: You’ll never guess this, but Lord of the Rings… I think I speak for both of us when I say that we also take a huge amount of inspiration from music in genres such as dungeon synth and dark ambient. I also really enjoy the atmosphere in games like Morrowind and Oblivion, so that tends to creep in as well.

While Starward Shadows Quarterly wears its literary inspirations on its sleeve, who are the artistic inspirations?

DRH: Oh wow, well, I could go on for more hours than anyone wants about this, so I’ll just give you a list of highlights: Michael Whelan, Philippe Caza, Lady Frieda Harris, H. R. Giger, Zdzisław Beksiński, Austin Osman Spare, Vincent Van Gogh, Alphonse Mucha, Bruce Pennington, and Frank Frazetta.

ECC: I really like the art of Michael Whelan, the guy who did the covers for the Elric series, along with countless others. Zdzisław Beksiński also immediately came to mind. Once upon a time, a former member of one of the most legendary proto-black metal bands of all time told me that my own artwork reminded him of Austin Osman Spare, so I suppose he makes the list as well.

Your submissions guidelines specifically call for works by neurodivergent and disabled authors. Do you feel weird fiction in general does a poor job of representing such voices?

ECC: Actually, yes. I feel that too often, the neurodivergence ends up being the “horror” or the punchline of the story. The same goes for disability. I feel there are too many stories about neurodivergent/disabled people and not enough by them, if that makes sense—and it should come as no surprise that most of these aforementioned stories are written by neurotypical people who see a life of disability as the ultimate horror.

DRH: I do feel that speculative and weird fiction do tend to follow the troughs previously dug for them by cisgendered male authors. Obviously, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of authors within that demographic that fully deserve the pedestal that they’ve been given. But I’ve always felt a burning desire to raise equal pedestals for other demographics: Pedestals reserved for others who match previous and current authors in skill, not in demographic.

Just a side note: I’m afraid that, sometimes, the label of “weird” sometimes also causes a lot of the very authors we seek to slink back and hide a bit: not everyone is comfortable wearing an alternative or underrepresented label like a shroud. Not everyone wants to feel like a “freak who joined the circus” thanks to a lot of the stigma that still clings to the idea of being different. So, hopefully, I’m not creating a catch-22. However, I do feel that speculative/weird fiction as a whole tends to passively allow neurodivergent and disabled voices to go unheard, and I want to actively call those voices to a place where they’ll feel welcome, whether it be as authors or as readers.

Based on your submissions, do you feel there is a lot of diversity in the folks writing weird fiction these days?

ECC: Unfortunately—and it’s hard to tell from a single submissions period, but I’ll try my best—it still in some ways seems to be an “old boys club.” I can say with confidence that we received more submissions from cis guys than any other demographic. Now I want to stress there’s nothing wrong with this. We’ve published several of them, in fact, and will continue to welcome them with open arms along with everyone else. But even though we specifically called for disabled and neurodivergent authors, we didn’t get submissions from a ton of them.

One genre that’s especially lacking in diversity, I’ve noticed, is Sword and Sorcery. Finding a good Sword and Planet story by a female author honestly felt like fishing out a single pearl in a sea of marbles. We barely received any S&S/S&P from anyone but cis guys, which I hope in the future will change.

Another trend I noticed was that guys lean towards “harder” SF stuff and body horror, while women seemed more likely to send fantasy or psychological stuff. Of course, there were a few awesome ladies that sent hardcore body horror that made everything else in the inbox seem pale—but unfortunately that’s not exactly the type of thing we’re going for with the magazine, as cool as it is.

I must say, I feel that the published Weird Fiction sphere feels very “curated” after digging through our inbox. The subs were definitely not in line with what I see out there in the world published. I think editors are doing a careful job selecting work by underrepresented groups, and making sure not to gloss them over like they might have in the past.

DRH: …I wish I had a different answer to give you, but: not so much. There’s more diversity than there used to be, certainly, and that’s wonderful. However, I do still have to put in a deliberate effort to find authors from underrepresented demographics within the ocean of slush. (If you fall under a marginalized demographic, take this as an active call! I’d love to read what you have to say.)

From an editorial perspective, how do you handle issues of prejudice & discrimination in the submissions you receive?

DRH: At the risk of seeming blunt or harsh: If a submission contains enough content that I don’t even feel comfortable reading, let alone publishing, I simply auto-reject. I tend to ramble (in case anyone missed that) so I can’t afford the time to give personal feedback if something surpasses a certain threshold of “not at all what I’m looking for.” It’s too overwhelming.

But if a piece is creative and promising enough to maintain its “spark” despite any discriminatory/prejudiced language or themes, I’m happy to reach out to the author and discuss the matter with them. I’ll point out how it could be interpreted, ask if that’s how they meant for it to come off, and offer them the opportunity for an R&R. After all, if someone is open to the idea of learning and growing as a modern author, I’m thrilled to play a part in helping them to do that.

ECC: There were a few situations where we received a story where it genuinely seemed like the author didn’t realize what they were writing could be perceived as offensive. In these cases, if I felt they were well-intentioned but naïve, I gently explained why we couldn’t publish it. However, if something was written on purpose with the intent to shock or come across as offensive, we usually just sent them a form rejection. Right out of the gate I decided I wasn’t going to engage with trolls—especially the ones who know exactly what they’re doing. Why give them the sick satisfaction?

As speculative fiction writers, artists, and editors, you have both worked in the trenches of weird fiction websites and ezines for a few years. Have you faced discrimination for your gender or sexuality in that context?

ECC: Recently, I had a really weird experience where I submitted a story to a certain venue, and it was quickly accepted with much enthusiasm. However, somehow, the editor seemed to have missed the fact that the main character was trans. (It certainly wasn’t the focal point of the story, so I guess it makes sense it went over his head: I always try to present characters as just “people” so maybe this time I did too good of a job, ha). But anyways, as soon as he found out, he started acting kind of weird, and basically tried to delicately tiptoe out of the contract.

All discrimination aside, the same guy was also incredibly hurtful and rude to me during the prolonged illness of a family member after approaching me for some totally unrelated writing event, so he may have just been a jerk.

But all-in-all, my experiences haven’t been so bad. Overall people have been pretty courteous, honestly. I can’t really comment definitively on whether or not my gender has worked for or against me, because if I’ve been rejected on that basis, it’s been kept behind the scenes.

DRH: Unfortunately, yes, I have. There has been more than one seemingly-promising opportunity that went dark after my LGBTQ+ status came to light, and I’ll admit that it can be very disheartening. There was even a situation where I was asked/welcomed to volunteer my voice as a marginalized demographic, only to have the project fall through after the creator moved on and found more “convenient” replacements. Things like that suck. They always have, and they always will—but, at the end of the day, they only reinforce the conviction that I’m doing the right thing by working on a publication that actively seeks to welcome and elevate authors who may have experienced similar things.

As a medium, how do you think ezines like Starward Shadows Quarterly compare with older media like Weird Tales? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

ECC: Weird Tales has an old, dedicated audience who might not even be that tech savvy. People are always going to follow it just for the name, and the fact that Lovecraft was published in it back in the day. It could be owned by a team of purple canaries and certain people would still rave about Weird Tales. Also, it’s basically impossible to get into this thing without already being established. I remember following their submissions a year or two ago, and they took a grand total of one unsolicited submission from a pool of 500 to 1,000 authors. So basically it’s an invite-only old boys club that, in my opinion, isn’t really offering anything revolutionary or even new.

This probably sounds like a stab, but I don’t mean it that way: I feel the same way about plenty of other big-name magazines that invite the same big-name authors again and again. For lack of a better word, it’s boring. At Starward Shadows, we promise to give new voices a chance instead of creating an echo chamber for the same old ones. (Not like we could afford the big names anyway! Ha!)

But at the end of the day, I think this makes us a lot more relatable. The average up-and-coming author stands about as much of a chance at getting into Weird Tales as a street urchin does at becoming the Emperor of the Galaxy, so hopefully they’ll dream of getting into Starward Shadows instead.

DRH: I don’t really have much to say about this other than that we hope to bring in all kinds of fresh content that Weird Tales doesn’t offer.

The tagline for Starward Shadows Quarterly is “The Speculative Fiction Ezine Where The Stars Are Always Right.” Do you think that the stars have always been right for diverse cosmic horror fiction? Or has something changed?

DRH: Oh boy, this is a loaded question. Erica and I actually banter back and forth on a very regular basis over whether the stars are “right” for something or not. I say that the stars are ever changing, and that the constant chaos and change of the universe mean that there’s a point of opportunity for just about anything. In fact, one could say that the stars have always been right for diversity since it’s always been present—humanity’s social confines have been the problem.

I would, however, say that the “cultural stars” are now more favorable towards diversity within cosmic horror fiction than they used to be during, say, Lovecraft’s day. I do think that society has shifted towards a place of greater awareness of marginalized demographics—I shudder to think of the life of secrecy and fear that I’d have had to live mere decades ago. And hopefully, with future issues, we can continue to make the stars even better for those who can relate to a statement like that.

ECC: Oh, they never are. It’s an inside joke, really. If you sit around waiting for the stars to be right, your life and the entire world will pass you by. Whether the stars are right or not, this is the time you were born in, so it’s the only chance you’ll ever have to write cosmic horror.

All jokes aside, I think we can all agree on one thing: In the past, the stars definitely weren’t aligned for anybody that didn’t fit the mold. But this isn’t a problem unique to cosmic horror. And sadly, to this day, things haven’t changed as much as they should have. We can’t fix the world, but we can promise to give you a chance that others wouldn’t if you send us your greatest cosmic horror piece, no matter who you are or where you come from.

What do you see as the future of Lovecraftian fiction and cosmic horror?

ECC: I think the universe, and the future of cosmic horror, is a circle. In other words, everything old is new again. The past and the present will slowly integrate in a way that Lovecraft himself probably never would have imagined. New authors will continue to be inspired by his work, but slowly, the trickle of new material flowing into the Mythos will become a waterfall: So the authors of the future will have a lot more to work with than we do in this generation. If we do a good job, that is.

I wonder what he’d think about it, really. Maybe if the universe really is a circle, the stars will finally be right someday in the far future of the distant past, and I can ask him.

DRH: Oh, everything. As social dynamics and culture have changed to become more accepting, and as scientific discoveries have progressed, so many doors have been opened. In online spaces you find people exchanging incredible, inspiring, and horrifying ideas at a rate that never used to be possible. I think that all these things will contribute to cosmic horror becoming more intricate and well known than ever before—perhaps too well known…

Thank you Erica and Desmond for answering these questions, and for a chance to pick your brains about the state of weird fiction, and a look at the inner workings of Starward Shadows Quarterly.

Starward Shadows Quartery can be found online at https://starwardshadows.com/ and you can follow them on twitter at https://twitter.com/StarwardShadows.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

3 thoughts on “Editor Spotlight: Interview with Erica Ciko Campbell and Desmond Rhae Harris of Starward Shadows Quarterly

  1. Wonderful Interview. There are so many magazines on weird fiction and sword and sorcery i’ve discovered but yet to finish the works of Howard, Lovecraft, Smith and many other classic pulpsters.

    Like

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