The Cthulhu Humor of William Browning Spencer

The Austin author finds the lighter side of Lovecraft and other horrors

William Browning Spencer (photo by David Brendan Hall)

For Austin-based writer William Browning Spencer, Lovecraft is easy; comedy is hard.

H.P. Lovecraft has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years. Once recognizable only to a few fervid fans of dark fantasy literature, the eldritch ways of the Weird Tales author are now familiar to many more consumers of popular culture. Much Lovecraftian fiction is deadly serious, though, as playful and amusing as an Elder God wakened early from a millennia-long catnap. It takes a writer with a peculiarly off-kilter artistic sensibility, such as Spencer, to see the potential for comedy in the Cthulhu Mythos, to tweak its conventions and assumptions, without resorting to cosmic slapstick.

On July 31, specialty publisher Subterranean Press will release The Unorthodox Dr. Draper and Other Stories, Spencer's third collection of short fiction. Not all of the nine stories contained therein use Lovecraft's fiction as their narrative springboards, but each is strange and darkly funny in its own way.

In an email, Edgar Award winner Joe Lansdale, author of the Hap & Leonard crime novels, wrote, "Bill is his own thing, and unique is the proper word. He writes novels from his personal vision, not someone else's, and I admire that most about his work."

It takes a writer with a peculiarly off-kilter artistic sensibility, such as Spencer, to see the potential for comedy in the fiction of Lovecraft.

By phone, Spencer, 71, spoke about his new book, his history with the Austin literary scene, and his abandoned notion of becoming a professional herpetologist.

Born in Washington, D.C., and reared in Vienna, Va., Spencer moved to Austin in 1990. His first novel, the thriller Maybe I'll Call Anna, was published that year, after an unfruitful project with a book packager – "the guy who discovered Jacqueline Susann" – fell through. When he arrived here, Spencer's first job was on the night shift at the Austin American-States­man. "I've done a lot of typesetting and paste-up over the years," he says. "The late-night thing was to my taste, as it were. I don't like to get up too early in the morning."

Spencer gradually became part of Austin's science-fiction and fantasy scene, attending ArmadilloCon, signing books at the now-defunct Adventures in Crime & Space store, and teaching novel-writing courses.

"I always advise [would-be authors] to start with a novel," Spencer says. "I don't think there are many agents reading tons of short stories in order to find new clients."

Spencer's second novel, 1995's Résumé With Monsters, explicitly connected soul-destroying Lovecraftian horrors with soul-destroying corporate jobs. Having worked in the insurance and high-tech industries, Spencer was able to draw on his own employment history for inspiration. "Résumé With Monsters is not a scary, dark novel," Spencer says. "When Joe Lansdale reviewed it, he said it was the only Lovecraftian book he'd ever read with a happy ending."

"Lovecraft is remarkably uneven," Spencer says. "There are stories of his, like 'The Rats in the Walls' and 'The Colour out of Space,' that are really good. But there's a lot of his stuff that's just purple prose. His popularity has to do with the fact that he was among the first to set forward this notion where there are alien races out there, and we're like bugs to them. They might destroy us, but it would be incidental to what else they might be busy doing."

Spencer's next novel, Zod Wallop, took a different, slightly surreal tack as it followed a children's book author coming to grips with the drowning of his young daughter. The novel has since been optioned by Christopher Landon, actor Michael Lan­don's son. After his father died, the younger Landon read the novel and, according to Spencer, was really excited about it. "He said it really helped him with the kind of grief he was going through. It is a novel about acceptance."

Spencer's most recent novel, Irrational Fears, satirized the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. It featured killer cultists, supernatural antagonists, and a malevolent man-eating toilet.

As for his latest book, Spencer said that he is particularly pleased with the story "Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love," about a seriously ill-fated romantic engagement. Other highlights include "Penguins of the Apocalypse," the story of an alcoholic dad's terrifying drinking buddy, and "The Tenth Muse," in which an interviewer learns why it's best not to ask why a beloved but reclusive writer wrote only one novel.

Spencer said that he is working on a new novel. "It's called My Sister Natalie, Snake Goddess of the Amazon. A lot of it is about my growing up and being obsessed with reptiles."

There was a time, he said, when he thought he would have a career in reptiles. "I'm glad I didn't. It's completely demoralizing to be an environmentalist now."

Ecological issues aside, herpetology's loss is science-fiction, fantasy, and horror literature's gain.

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