To Hell with Dante is a collection of cynical afterlife stories, ranging from comedic genius to dark surrealism. To help kick off this fine anthology, I'll be conducting interviews with many of the contributors. Today I'm interviewing Jeff Provine, the excellent author who contributed the story "Gravedigger." Thank you for being here, Jeff
JEFF PROVINE: Always a pleasure!
MTI: We've done this before, but for readers who didn't catch our last interview, why not tell them a little about yourself?
JP: I’m an adjunct professor in
teaching Composition, Mythology, and a course called
“The History of Comics.” It’s work that gets me pulled in three directions at
once, but it does give some time in my schedule for writing projects. Oklahoma City
Since it’s the Halloween season: one of my other projects has been creating the OU Ghost Tour, a charity walk around
’s campus telling spooky stories from the past. It has
been a great time researching and interviewing (I’m not much of an investigator;
I just don’t have the patience). Two books collecting local legends have spun
off it: Campus Ghosts of Norman, Norman and, new for 2014, Haunted
Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma
MTI: Your story, “Gravedigger,” appears in To Hell with Dante, tell us a little bit about that. What's the general idea behind it?
JP: The idea came out of the many references to those gateways to Hell in places like
, Turkmenistan , and Sicily … what if someone stumbled across a new one? Ireland
There’s another story behind the story as well, one that began Halloween night, 2010. The air hung heavy with mist as the warm fall day turned to a chilly night. As I walked along in my mad scientist’s costume to meet some friends for a party, the mists parted, and there came along a pretty young lady dressed in gender-bent Vash the Stampede from Trigun. It was like I dream. I’m sure my mouth was gaping. We passed by each other, traded smiles and quips of “nice coat” for her red trench coat and white lab coat. And then she was gone.
For days, I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I was enamored. Who was this girl?
Then, as I had told the story a time or two, it bounced back through the grapevine that someone had a class with the girl, who had worn her Vash costume to class. I had to make sure, so I staked out the class. While I was waiting, I had a notebook with me and spent some time jotting notes for stories. “Gravedigger” spawned out of that.
It was her class, and we did end up going on a couple of dates, but nothing really took off. It was just as well since, a couple of holidays down the road, I met my future wife at a New Year’s Party.
MTI: Does your story hold any special significance, perhaps seeking to provoke some thoughts about the afterlife, or was it just a lot of fun fiction?
JP: The story’s theme is taking the reality of Hell and showing what one might be willing to trade for it. To get the feel, I made lots of references to Revelation, the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, and modern horror. Even though we know it’s horrible, the gravedigger has the chance to gain so much if he’s willing to sell his soul for just a few days at a time: money, fame, power.
MTI: Okay, on a totally unrelated note, if you could meet and talk with any one deceased person, who would it be?
JP: The figures in the story (Vlad, Jack, and the 1980s Business Man) are each fascinating characters. On the one hand, asking someone about their buried treasure would be a good deceased person to meet. On the other, great figures like Theodore Roosevelt or Walt Disney would be interesting. Personally, I would like to have a good talk with my late grandfather, who passed away when I was a teenager. He had a lot of wisdom to share that I was too young to understand.
MTI: Shifting back to your writing, can you tell us a little about what you're working on right now?
JP: I’m looking at creating a loosely connected batch of stories all tied together geographically in the spirit of
, and Arkham, Massachusetts : Derry, Maine . Many of its stories are inspired by actual Chisholm
County, Oklahoma events that I’ve researched while writing my Campus Ghosts and Haunted Norman creative nonfiction collections
of local lore. Oklahoma
MTI: Other than your piece appearing in To Hell with Dante, do you have any other stories being published in the near future?
JP: I’ve got a short story in the collection Krampusnacht coming out this Christmas from World Weaver. Bad little boys and girls watch out for the monstrous goatman with a switch!
MTI: Writers are often voracious readers. Have you run across any good literature lately that you'd like to recommend? You know, other than your own great work.
JP: I read the Mammoth Collection Volume 1 of Elephantmen a short time back. It was classic science fiction in every sense of the word.
MTI: Other than writing, what would you call your favorite hobby or pastime?
JP: I’m a big board game enthusiast. We’re living in a golden age of indie board games thanks to technological development in printing and design. It’s exciting to see all the new takes on how tabletop gaming can go.
MTI: Once again, you have the attention of potential readers. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with them, or possibly a sales pitch to encourage them to read more of your writing?
JP: There are stories everywhere; we just have to take a look. I’m bubbling over with ideas, and the trick is to just get some time to put them down on paper. One my favorite things in all of the world is to talk stories with people, so, if you have a story idea but aren’t sure where to go with it, feel free to chat!
MTI: And now, to help satisfy our readers, here are the first few paragraphs from your story, Gravedigger!
The old gravedigger put his shovel through the earth and struck empty space. His gnarled hand caught the handle before the weight of the blade pulled it underground. He held it for a moment before he wiggled it back and forth to free it.
Soil crumbled around the opening. Foul, wet air bubbled up into the grave, leaving a sick fog around his muddy boots. Dull, red light shone up from the crack in the ground.
“What the hell…?” the gravedigger mumbled.
He took a step backward. When he had sure footing at the edge of the six-foot grave, he looked back at the eerie hole. It seemed larger.
The gravedigger licked his lip, tasting sweat and dirt. He’d dug graves for the family mortuary since he could walk. These days his grandson did most of the digging with the backhoe, but he still took his exercise by digging a few by hand. There wasn’t much more relaxing than lovingly crafting a grave in the quiet of the nighttime.
In all those years of all those shovelfuls of ground, he’d never seen anything like this. He’d hit sinkholes and, once, a nest of badgers, but no red-glowing hole. It stank, and the light cast up horrid bleeding shadows. The shop light hanging over his head seemed drowned out.
MTI: Thank you again, Jeff, for another great interview. Those who want to read the rest of Gravedigger and 20 other cynical afterlife stories can buy To Hell with Dante!