Off/Kilter: Q&A with Keith Cadieux, author of Signal Decay
Does the past have the power to haunt us? Keith Cadieux’s novella Signal Decay (At Bay Press) introduces us to Lori, newly widowed after the death of her husband, who becomes determined to find him through the study of his past recordings. In this Off/Kilter interview with Keith, we dig further into the philosophy of memory and the power of new mediums to carry us forward into the future even after we’re gone.
Leyla Top: Tell us a bit about your novella Signal Decay and where the inspiration for it came from?Keith Cadieux: There are a few different sources that came together into this particular story. Many of my ideas come from researching odd concepts that I’ve stumbled across and then finding a way to connect those core concepts to a human story. For Signal Decay, the idea started when I learned about the laff box, which is a real sound equipment invention from the early days of TV and relates to how laugh tracks were created for sitcoms. The core idea really built from the fact that this machine would assemble a laugh track from a library of singular laugh recordings. And then there’s the reference to I Love Lucy, which is a show I watched a lot as a kid and I remember being able to hear Desi Arnaz laughing offscreen in pretty much any scene that he’s not acting in. For the human story, this stemmed from observing a few people who had suffered through the deaths of loved ones. I knew someone whose friend, young and healthy, had died suddenly and it was such a shock and left such a gap through the whole family. Someone else much closer, after losing a family member, would call their voicemail to listen to the recorded message, and eventually saved that voicemail message on their phone. And I think you can see how those pieces could be assembled into the story that Signal Decay became.LT: To what extent do you feel that a person’s spirit can communicate through their digital DNA or their digital ghost after they pass? Do you think that what we leave behind of ourselves through our advanced digital mediums is more haunting or has more longevity than what would have been left behind by the dead in the past like physical letters, notes, photos, keepsakes?KC: New technology is always a focal point for haunting or ghost activity. As new technology emerges in history (photographs, sound recordings, film, and now internet message boards, social media, YouTube) there is always some hope that it will prove capable of truly connecting with another plane. In the case of digital ghosts, there is a really fascinating paradox in that, what we leave behind can be so much more complete, a fuller encapsulation of a person or their personality, and yet it’s that much more fragile. If a computer hard drive or a social media account is deleted, that information is just gone. And in the case of digital memory, it often is just information, without a real tangible object to preserve. It is data, which can be deleted or corrupted. Hard drives corrode. The cloud is a kind of digital ether. And now with the idea that Artificial Intelligence that can write movie scripts or that can learn the patterns behind a person’s text messages and generate new ones (explored in an episode of Black Mirror, but is also apparently now a real service that exists), again, there is an appearance of longevity but also a fragility and the possibility of manipulation. I guess the short version of this answer would be, I think we as human beings have always put that hope of haunting (which is really a desire for connection) into technology, and we don’t seem to be moving away from it at all. In many ways, we are looking to the past in much the same way we always have.LT: The story sort of carries a haunted, contemporary idea of Proust’s madeleine and the retrieval of memory. Now of course we’re embedding ourselves within—and consuming through—more advanced mediums, but does this change our experience of recalling the memory of a loved one? I know in your previous novella Gaze (Quattro Books) the theme of reflection and distortion is present—do you think there is room for the truth of the memory of someone to be distorted? For example, how true to life is the memory of Tim that Lori finds throughout his files and recordings?KC: I quite like the connection with the madeleine and I think that perhaps our more advanced and direct media may work the same way but in reverse—a photograph or a video recalls more vividly the broad strokes of the memory but may still grant us access to the smaller sensory memories, like smell and taste, rather than the taste and texture of cake and tea reawakening something much larger in scope. And I think very much there is room for the memory of someone to be distorted and, not to sound too cynical, but I think perhaps that there are only distortions. Maybe a more appropriate word would be perspectives. Everyone’s memory of Tim is different and they all hope to trigger those memories with different things. There’s a quick mention of the items that Tim’s other family members want: his T-shirts, his movies. Lori is of course hung up on the sound of him. Lori, in a certain way, is completely right when she tells Tim’s mother that no one knew Tim like she did; there is a version of Tim that only she knew. But by the story’s end we learn that there is a version of Tim that his mother knew and that Lori doesn’t recognize. Those different experiences of Tim, those different perspectives, add up to a complete person. And that is perhaps the lack we feel when we lose someone. We have access to perspectives of that person, to distortions, but the complete person has vanished and we miss them.LT: There are several beautiful full-page, abstract illustrations throughout the novella. What do they represent to you and how do they connect to the broader story?KC: The illustrations were done by Matt Joudrey from At Bay Press and they were completed during the layout process so I didn’t see them until I got my first look at the proofs of the book. I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out. I think there is a really interesting connection between the composition of the images and where they appear within the text itself. They start out as these swirling, soft-stroked tunnel or whirlpool images but then start to incorporate straight, jagged lines and strokes that compete for space on the page, with calmer, larger swipes underneath. They are abstract images, so I love the idea of readers seeing the images and applying or interpreting the emotions from the page through those images.LT: In a review of Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds you talk about the rise in popularity of literary horror and the Weird and certainly I think Signal Decay fits into that category. Curious to know the other works of literary horror or Weird lit on your radar that you’re currently excited about or that you think are doing new and creative things to drive those genres forward? Bonus points for any Canadian authors!KC: This can be tricky because there is the problem of defining “the weird,” which is pretty subjective and not always necessarily related to horror. Perhaps one of the clearest and most concise definitions of the sub-genre comes from Mark Fisher’s The Weird and The Eerie where he notes that the weird involves something that does not belong, bringing into a familiar concept something that normally belongs completely outside of and beyond it. But this is certainly not the universally agreed upon definition and it’s also fairly recent, so the weird itself predates attempts to categorize it. But in terms of contemporary and literary horror, some authors I consistently watch are Carmen Maria Machado, David Demchuk (Canadian); for more out-and-out horror, you mentioned Nathan Ballingrud whose previous collection North American Lake Monsters is a favorite of mine. I’m also a huge fan of Michael Wehunt’s collection Greener Pastures; for horror novels, I’d recommend Stephen Graham Jones, who is insanely prolific so there are plenty of titles to choose from there; for weird short stories, two Canadian authors that have absolutely fantastic collections are Seyward Goodhand (Even That Wildest Hope, Invisible Publishing) and Camilla Grudova (The Doll’s Alphabet, Coach House Books). A real champion of the weird as a genre (and also Canadian) is Michael Kelly who is the publisher for Undertow Books and the editor of Shadows and Tall Trees which began as a literary magazine but has become more of an annual anthology but it’s consistently excellent. And, not to spoil your next question but you do mention Jonathan Ball, whose collection The Lightning of Possible Storms (Book*hug Press), is an incredible work that I think also veers into an experimental vein of the weird.
LT: In a podcast interview with Jonathan Ball (author of The Lightning of Possible Storms) you mention Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s The Weird anthology. Do you have a favourite story from that collection and why?KC: The Weird compendium edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer is a tremendous text. And a real behemoth and I must confess that I have not made my way through its entirety. It’s a fantastic reference and provides a fascinating chronological look at how weird stories have been accumulating in the last 100+ years. But I do of course have some real favorites from this table of contents, a couple of which are: “In the Hills, the Cities” by Clive Barker, which is just such a crazy idea. Essentially, two small towns build gigantic golems out of their own living townspeople and then pit them against each other. It’s got this truly odd mix of folk horror and kaiju combat. It shouldn’t work, but it does beautifully; “The Town Manager” by Thomas Ligotti, I’m just a huge fan of Ligotti. This story is a great example of how his stories intermix dread and humor. The devolution of the town and the ever-changing “office” of the town manager is at once a caricature and a grim portent. And then the final diner scene is such a cynical capper that evokes both dread and a chuckle. There are also classics like “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson. I could go on for quite a while, so I think it’s best to stop there.LT: Any plans for a full length novel or a collection of short stories (*she said, hopefully)?KC: I am typically a pretty slow writer – I tend to get absorbed in research and really let ideas simmer for a long time before I manage to break the story out of them. And, as is the case with many other writers and artists, the pandemic has not been a big help. The last year has been full of distractions but yes, there are indeed plans. I do have a short story collection that is currently out on submission and a novel idea that I’ve been working on for some time. The working title is The Dead Letters, but that’s all I’m willing to spoil at this point. It’s not quite near completion just yet but I’m hoping this coming year will be more productive and fruitful than the last one.
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Keith Cadieux is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor. His debut, the novella Gaze was shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award and a ReLit award. He co-edited the horror anthology The Shadow Over Portage and Main, which was also shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award, as well as the ‘Fantasmagoriana Series’ published by the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. His short fiction has appeared in various Canadian fiction venues, including Grain, Prairie Fire, and ELQ and has been translated into French. Two short stories of his (“Stuck” and “Donner Parties”) have appeared on the Honourable Mentions list of ‘The Best Horror of the Year’ series, edited by Ellen Datlow. He lives with his partner Lindsey and a big dog named Bear.