Though it wasn’t unexplored territory before, there’s been such an uptick in environmental fiction the last decade that it now has its own short-hand: cli-fi. Though usually that term refers to stories of a science fiction nature. So, what about horror? Can’t really call that ho-fi. Or hi-fi. Maybe we should ask Alex Ebenstein, the founder of Dread Stone Press, and editor of the new anthology Field Notes From A Nightmare: An Anthology Of Ecological Horror (paperback, Kindle). Or we could just ask him about this collection, which is what I did in the following email interview.
The title and cover art make it kind of obvious, but since I like to be thorough, what is Field Notes From A Nightmare: An Anthology Of Ecological Horror?
Field Notes From A Nightmare is an eco-horror anthology, containing eighteen stories from some wickedly talented indie horror authors, with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Tim Lebbon, and all edited by me.
And when you say “Ecological Horror,” are we talking about the environment creating something monstrous, like the smog monster in Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, or where the horror comes from something horrific happening to the environment, like when global warming caused a new ice age in the movie The Day After Tomorrow? Or both?
I’m so glad you asked. Because for being a relatively specific subgenre of horror, “ecological horror” is rather varied and broad, and everyone has their own preconceived notions or past experiences with eco-horror. Both are valid, of course, and I intentionally left the submission call broad because I wanted to see all sorts of eco-horror stories.
That being said, as I read submissions, and the final table of contents took shape, there became a definite theme: humans doing bad things to the environment, and Mother Nature “striking” back. So, the effects of climate change are touched on for sure. Of course, there are also stories that show the threats and dangers of nature that don’t necessarily have anything to do with humanity being bad first.
Why did you decide to have both kinds represented and not just focus on one or the other?
When I set out on this endeavor, I wanted a wide variety of eco-horror stories. As time went on, however, I realized that wish mostly stemmed from not knowing specifically what I wanted the book to be, or perhaps not feeling like I could pull off what I really wanted. It eventually became clear that what I really wanted was an anthology that had something to say about humanity’s treatment of the environment, climate change, and otherwise. But, in direct opposition to that, was not wanting to beat the reader over the head with this “message.” Nuance, right? So, anyway, I think that’s why there are both, or several, kinds of eco-horror stories in the book, but they heavily favor the “humans are bad” variety.
Where did you get the idea for Field Notes From A Nightmare?
I have a college degree in Natural Resource Management, which is essentially Environmental Science. I ended up pivoting and going into a different career — I make maps for living — but the passion for the environment and bettering our world has always stayed with me. It faded for a while, unfortunately, because it can be depressing and exhausting, and since I wasn’t spending my day to day job in that realm, it became easier to let it go.
But then 2020 hit and, like, did you see the news? Remember when Australia was on fire? There was so much else, too, and I think that was a bit of a wake-up call. I wanted to be aware again and make understanding what’s wrong and how we might be able to fix it part of my life again. But the reality is I had little spare time to give. I have my day job, a wife and kid, and this whole writing thing I can’t seem to shake. So, I thought, “How can I add this old passion back into my life without completely sacrificing the things already taking up all of my time?” The answer I got back was this anthology. I could refocus on the environmental stuff while continuing to pursue my writing and publishing interests. A kind of win-win.
Field Notes From A Nightmare is the first short story anthology you’ve edited. In figuring out what to do, and what not to do, did you read any short story anthologies that someone else had assembled?
I didn’t necessarily go read other anthologies specifically to figure out what to do. However, I do like reading anthologies, so I’m fairly familiar with them and how they work, at least from a final product perspective. Anything edited by Doug Murano is top tier, in my opinion, and certainly worth your time whether you want to read for fun or want a good example of an excellent anthology.
Now, to directly contradict what I just said, I did read two anthologies specifically before working on Field Notes, but that was less to find out how they worked and more because they had themes similar to what I was going for: The Earth Strikes Back edited by Richard Chizmar, and Vanishing Acts edited by Ellen Datlow.
In terms of the pieces in Field Notes From A Nightmare, did you solicit submissions, or did you reach out to writers and ask them to contribute?
All of the pieces for the anthology were obtained from an open submission call. At the time, it seemed like the only thing to do. Honestly, I really didn’t even consider reaching out to writers to contribute. Maybe for the next one I’ll reach out to writers to contribute, but for Field Notes being the first anthology, I kind of felt like treating it like a blank slate, if that makes sense.
Also, being so new to the publishing scene, there was a concern that I didn’t have enough clout or experience to warrant asking established writers to contribute.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other conditions did the pieces have to fit?
All of the stories had to be previously unpublished and fit within the word count range of 1,000 to 4,000 words, although one story that found its way into the anthology broke that rule. Don’t tell anyone.
You have a degree in Natural Resource Management, i.e. Environmental Science. How often was your feedback on someone’s piece more about the science than the storytelling or the grammar?
I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but it’s been close to a decade since graduating with that degree, and I forgot a lot of what I learned back in school. So, no, I didn’t really care one way or another about the factual aspects of the story. I mean, it is fiction, after all.
Along with being the editor of Field Notes From A Nightmare, you’re also the founder and editor of Dread Stone Press. In putting Field Notes together, did you discover any new writers who you’re now going to publish something by?
This probably doesn’t exactly answer your question, but prior to announcing Field Notes, and while working on the anthology, I started my “Dose Of Dread” series, which is twice-monthly horror flash fiction published on the Dread Stone Press website. The idea behind that was to help generate an audience so that I’m not a complete unknown when Field Notes finally came out, as well as to create another outlet for writers to publish their work. I also just like reading flash fiction, so in that regard it’s almost a selfish thing.
Coming back around to your question: there are a couple writers that I have now published on the website for “Dose Of Dread” and in Field Notes. Really, anyone I’ve published at this point I consider part of the “Dread Stone Family.” They’ve all got me as a fan for life.
What about writers you can’t sign for whatever reason so instead you just went out and bought all of their books?
I don’t know that I went to the “buy all their books” level, but I got a few hundred submissions for Field Notes and only published eighteen stories. That means there were a ton of great stories by extremely talented writers that didn’t make it into the book. You better believe I’ve made note of those writers and have my eye out for their future work.
Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Field Notes From A Nightmare that you think could work particularly well as a movie?
All of them!
Okay, maybe not all because there are several really short ones in there — but the worlds would be really cool to see on the screen, even if the plots aren’t enough to carry a feature film.
Real answer? I think there are several, but I’ll name a few. “Concerning A Pond In Massachusetts” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth, the “true” story of Henry David Thoreau, is ripe for an adaptation, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the lead, naturally. Joe Koch’s “We Have Always Lived In The Soil” is a psychedelic fungal trip that I think A24 would totally sink their teeth into. “Root Structure” by Eddie Generous is an eco-slasher story that I think has the propulsive narrative to easily fill a full-length feature. And then there’s “The MeatTM” by Tim Hoelscher, which is like a black comedy version of Soylent Green. I would kill to see the likes of Jim Cummings or Josh Ruben put that story on screen.
So, is there anything else you want people to know about Field Notes From A Nightmare?
You know, I’ve mentioned a bit and kind of danced around the fact that this book lays pretty heavily into the idea that humanity has been bad to the environment. On some days I may say I never meant for this book to “send a message,” while on others I might feel proud about the pointed commentary within, regardless of whether or not it can be a bit didactic. But, you know what? I think I’m going to lean into this idea that hey, maybe this book can have some importance outside of providing good eco-horror stories to read. Not that I’m sitting here imagining Field Notes has or will change the world, mind you, but a writer / reviewer, M.A. Blanchard, made a comment in her review of the book that had me feeling proud and I feel no shame in saying so. I’ll share her quote and you can decide for yourself: “I would recommend this anthology to anyone looking for high-quality modern horror, particularly readers who turn to horror for help in processing pressing and distressing issues such as climate change.”
Finally, if someone enjoys Field Notes From A Nightmare, what short story anthology that someone else edited would you recommend they check out next?
If someone liked Field Notes, then the first place I’d direct them next with regards to similar anthologies would be the ones I mentioned earlier: The Earth Strikes Back edited by Richard Chizmar, and Vanishing Acts edited by Ellen Datlow. The latter leans more heavily into sci-fi, while the former is more horror, but both served as guiding points for me. They were the books I read after I decided to move forward with an eco-horror anthology. Both are chocked full of incredible stories from A-List genre writers. I highly recommend them.