Friday, March 10, 2017

Susan Casper's Clowns


It's been a week since Susan Casper died but it feels like forever. She left a big gaping hole in reality when she left us.

Some time ago, over the course of a couple of years, I did a book-length interview with Gardner Dozois,  covering every story he'd written to date from the beginning of his career. The book was published by Old Earth Books as Being Gardner Dozois. Gardner had written a couple of collaborations with his wife, so when we came to those, I asked Susan to sit in on the interview.

The following excerpt from the book covers "The Clowns," written by Susan, Gardner, and Jack Dann. I decided to share it with you because it gives you some sense of Susan as a writer. But also, I have to confess because the opening exchange demonstrates something of her wit.

“The Clowns,” co-written with Susan Casper and Jack Dann, appeared in PLAYBOY in August 1985, and...

Gardner Dozois: ... and ever since Susan’s been telling people that a picture of her appeared in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: Yeah, I had my picture in PLAYBOY.  It’s fun to tell people that.

Gardner Dozois: They’re all very impressed.

Susan Casper: They are!

Gardner Dozois: Some young girl last night in the Internet chat said, “Wow!  You must have been pretty!”

Susan Casper: Well, I was.  I still am.

The other stories you two were doing in collaboration at the same time were humorous, and this one is anything but humorous.  How did this get started?

Susan Casper: Gardner had this idea he’d been keeping in the back of his head for a very long time.  He made the mistake of telling Jack about it...

Gardner Dozois: This was in 1983, November according to my notes.  Jack and Susan and I were all sitting around in our old apartment on Quince Street.  We were talking about weird stuff.  We were having one of those conversations where you talk about freaky, weird, possibly supernatural things that you’ve seen or heard of.

Susan Casper: And you and Gardner and Jack had been doing an awful lot of collaborations, and Jack turned around to me – I had not yet, at this point, had anything published – and told me that we really ought to do something together, because I had been writing for a while.  I said yes, that sounded like a good idea to me, and he came up with this idea that Gardner had actually mentioned a long time ago.  This was an idea for Jack and I to write, the two of us.

Gardner Dozois: No, earlier you and Jack were talking about how you ought to do a story together – then we had the conversation about weird stuff, and in the spirit of this conversation I related an anecdote that a guy had told to me in the Village.  Years ago, when I used to live in the Village, I had known this guy who was a heavy drug user.  The last time I had ever seen him, he told me about how clowns were following him around everywhere.  Nobody else could see them but him.  Part of the anecdote, which didn’t get into the story, is that he would be alone in the apartment late at night, and he would get up and go into the bathroom, and there would be a clown sitting on the toilet, grinning at him.  He would be riding on his motorcycle and he would feel cold arms close around his waist, and he would look over his shoulder and there’d be a clown riding behind him, grinning at him.

So I told this story, and as was his wont, Jack said, “Wow!  What a great idea for a story!  Susan, that can be the story that you and I write together!”  You started talking about this story, and the next thing I knew, Jack had rushed over to the typewriter, and you were writing this story about invisible clowns.

Susan Casper: We’d gotten all of about four sentences.

Gardner Dozois: I was kind of sulky about this, because I had been carrying around this story idea for years, and now you were writing this story, and you weren’t even consulting me or cutting me in on it!  You talked about this story for the rest of the evening.  The next day you were still working on the story, and I finally got pissed and said, “Well, if you’re going to write my story, then I have to be cut in on it!” 

So I insisted on dealing myself into the collaboration.

Susan Casper: It was an interesting thing, though, at this point to be collaborating with the two of them because, as I said, I hadn’t actually had anything published.  Jack would send me manuscript – not much, a couple of lines – and an outline of where I should take it.  I was sitting there going, this doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t sound right, and this dialog doesn’t work right.  But at the same time, being the unpublished member of the group, I felt kind of funny overwriting Jack, and saying, “No, it should go this way, and, no, the dialogue should sound like this, and, no, this is what they should say.”  But finally they convinced me that the only way it was going to work was if I just did it, the way I felt I ought to do it, and so that’s what I eventually did.

I did a lot of the original writing on that story, and then I’d send it to Jack and he’d do a little bit, and then he’d send it back to me and I’d do more.  Now what happened was while I did a lot of the original writing on the story, they both came along and overwrote what I wrote.  So I don’t feel like I did most of the story.  But I certainly did most of the first draft.

Gardner Dozois: You had a good feel for the dialogue of the kid and his family.  Your kid-and-family dialogue was actually more authentic-sounding than Jack’s was.  So you overwrote most of that, as I recall.

You made some basic changes in the original vision.  The clowns are dressed in black and white, which was a sinister touch, and they’re going around actively killing people, shoving them in front of cars and whatnot.

Susan Casper: It’s funny, within a year it became a major motion picture.  For which we never saw a dime, I might add.

Gardner Dozois: What was it called – “Clowns from Outer Space”?

Susan Casper: Something like that.  “Killer Clowns from Outer Space,” I forget.

That would have been a coincidence, right?  Rather than somebody actually stealing the idea?

Gardner Dozois: Who knows?  It did appear in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: It certainly was in a source where people could have seen it.

Gardner Dozois: We didn’t think it was actionable enough to try to sue anybody over.

Susan Casper: Actually, we didn’t find out about it until it was too late.

Gardner Dozois: Of course, there are precedents for this.  One horror writer, I forget who it was, it might have been Robert Bloch, was talking about what horror was.  Horror was...

Susan Casper: You go to the circus, and you have fun, and you buy a balloon, and you watch the clowns, and you laugh at the clowns, and you have a wonderful time.  And then you come home from the circus, and you go into your apartment, and there’s the clown.

Gardner Dozois: A lot of the stuff from the original anecdote that the guy told me did not make it into the story.  Because we made it a child protagonist, he’s not riding the motorcycle and feeling the clown putting its arms around him.  The going into the bathroom and finding the clown there scene didn’t make it in either.

Susan Casper: We came up with the swimming pool sequence instead.  Which actually works better, with the two children.

Gardner Dozois: Susan wrote perhaps the bulk of the story.  What my contribution mostly was was working on the pacing.  I tried to give it more of a suspense movie kind of pacing.  I remember reworking several of these scenes to stretch them out in a way that would heighten tension. 

Susan Casper: He also, as he always did with collaborations, went over and smoothed things out, because my prose and Jack’s are nothing alike at all.  You could see real obvious welts where the story had gone back and forth between the two of us, and where it left huge chunks of what Jack did, and pieces I’d rewritten, and stuff.  He smoothed that out.  I certainly was not capable of that at that point.  I don’t know if I’d be capable of that now.

You never do provide a rationale for who these clowns are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Susan Casper: That’s the point.

Gardner Dozois: There’s a rationale, of course.  As in most of my stories, you could read it that none of these events are really happening, and the kid is just insane.  Or has gone insane.

Susan Casper: There’s a rational explanation for everything that happens in the story.  You can look at it as the kid just seeing these clowns, and the boy really does just drown.  But at the end, when he goes into the bedroom and sees the clowns there, who is he killing?  Of course, it is his parents’ bed.  If you look at it that way, the true horror is that he sees these clowns, but he’s actually killing his parents.

But I wanted to leave that open to public questionability.  I didn’t want to tie it down.

Gardner Dozois: The question is, has he gone insane and just thinks he’s seeing clowns, or is he really seeing clowns?  And of course, as with the thing in “The Gods of Mars,” it depends which way you collapse the wave-function.  One possibility is that he’s actually seeing these supernatural beings that are going around pushing people in front of buses, and then they come after him.  The other way to look at it is, he’s had a psychotic breakdown and is just making up all of these clowns as persecuting figures.

Susan Casper: I haven’t looked at this story for a long time, but I seem to recall that I was very, very careful to make sure there was nothing tangible that the clowns did or left behind.  That it was all the way possible from beginning to end that it was all in his head.

Gardner Dozois: Now, one potential weakness for this story is, we don’t give a reason why he starts seeing clowns, in a supernatural sense.  He doesn’t blunder into an old Indian graveyard or something.  He just suddenly starts seeing clowns.  To my mind that makes it a little more likely that it’s the psychotic breakdown explanation that’s the valid one.  There’s no real reason that these clowns start haunting him, or that he starts to see them.  You would think there would have to be a supernatural rationale for why he suddenly started seeing the clowns, and there really isn’t one given.

Susan Casper: There was at that particular time period a great debate going on in the horror field between what had previously been foremost in horror, psychological horror, and what was coming to the front in the horror field, which was very tangible, very gory, very realistic, striking-with-the-knife kind of horror, dismembering people kind of horror.  I had kind of wanted, within the boundaries of the story, to make a statement for the former.  Because that’s what I think is really scary.  Scary is in the head.  It’s not in the blood, it’s not in the guts, it’s not in seeing actual pieces of people lying on the ground.  Horror is, as Bloch said in that story I mentioned about the clown, the out-of-place in the commonplace.

Gardner Dozois: We set up the possibility of it all being a psychotic break on the kid’s part by mentioning that he had had psychological difficulties before.  In fact, his parents are very embarrassed about him because he was a nut, basically, or had had psychological treatment of some sort, which in those days was a big stigmata.  So that’s all set up there, so you can if you wish interpret the story in that light.

At one point Susan and Jack and I actually sat down over dinner and were discussing doing a novel-length version of this story.  But it didn’t come to anything.  Although I think it would have been possible.

Susan Casper: It would been, but I’m not sure anybody would have bought it.

Gardner Dozois: Well, that’s another story.  At the time, I think somebody might have.  The big horror boom was underway then.  Now, it’s probably problematical.

I think what kept us from having any real enthusiasm for it was that you would have had to just plug more incidents into the same structure, rather than adding anything new in kind.  You would have just had to plug in more incidents of him being chased around by clowns into the same basic structure.

Susan Casper: My basic objection to turning it into a novel is that I don’t think we could have done it without putting out a real answer there.  Yeah, the kid was crazy, or, yeah, there actually were clowns, and this is why they were following him around.  I didn’t particularly want to do either with it.

Gardner Dozois: Of course you could come up with a metaphysical structure where the clowns are always there, and every time somebody falls in front of a bus or falls down the stairs, it’s because there was a clown there pushing them.

Susan Casper: The clown as death. 

Gardner Dozois: Basically.  Or the clown as malefic spirit, at any rate.

Susan Casper: The grim reaper in orange wig and funny nose.

Gardner Dozois: That’s what the kid believes, at any rate.

Susan Casper: Anyway, I didn’t want to tie it down.  I didn’t want to make it specific.  I liked the story exactly the way it was.  I like the fact that people were unsure whether or not it was actually happening or all in the kid’s head.  In fact, that’s the main thing I get asked by people who’ve read the story: Was it real, or was it all in the kid’s head?  And, of course, the only thing you can say to that is, “Well, what do you think?”

Gardner Dozois: Actually, the bulk of the things that I’ve written, it’s probably possible to ask the question, is it real or is it all inside the guy’s head.

And as long as we're on the subject... 

Old Earth Books publisher Michael Walsh paid me an advance that covered the entire run of Being Gardner Dozois, which means I won't get any additional money from future sales of it. So I feel morally justified here in plugging a book I'm proud of.

Being Gardner Dozois is currently available from Old Earth Books. You can find the page with ordering information here.  Or you can just go the main page and wander around. They've got some very nifty books, available at quite reasonable prices.

Or you can write the Dragonstairs Press, which is Marianne Porter's "nanopress," and which still has a few copies of the book, which are both new and autographed by both Gardner and myself.It's not listed on the webpage. But it is available for sale. Terms upon request.

Above: Photo of  Susan Casper by Ellen Datlow, whose photographic record of the science fiction world over the past few decades is a treasures. Thanks for giving me permission, Ellen.


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