Ten Questions with Kelly Robson About “A Human Stain”
I taught Kelly’s story, “A Human Stain,” in 2018 in my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop—as a story that stood out, over at Tor (a Nebula Award winner, too). I’ll teach it again in 2019, since it made it into The Best Horror of the Year anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow. I wanted to take a moment to ask Kelly some questions about this story, as it does so many things well. Not only did it educate me, as an author, and keep me on my toes, but I know it inspired my students, too. So here we go.
- Where did the idea for this story come from, Kelly? Is it based on any myths or fables? I read a lot of non-fiction, which is filled with ideas for stories. In this case, I came across a tidbit about a village in the Alps where the mountainsides are so steep that people actually walk across the roofs to get from house to house, and the only access to the outside world is via boat. I was fascinated by that kind of isolation. And I also was reading a book about governesses. For a long time, it was the only paid job available to a middle or upper class woman, and it was a socially isolated situation. You weren’t a servant, but not a family member either. Psychological and physical isolation is really important to horror, I find.
- I think setting and atmosphere is crucial in horror. How did you go about creating such a dense, authoritative, and unsettling backdrop for your story? Is any of this based on places you’ve actually been? Definitely not anywhere I’ve been! But I did grow up in in a remote place and I find that to be much more frightening than the city. People are much more vulnerable when nobody is around—you can’t count on help from anyone.
- I am not a huge fan of gore in horror, but that’s just me. Don’t love it in film, either. (I thought it was nicely restrained in Hereditary and The Witch, for example.) But it has a place, and done well, it can really be one important note in a larger orchestrated piece. How did you decide when, and how much to show here, as far as the visceral, unsettling, graphic moments? I’m thinking of the violence toward the end, especially, with both Mimi and Helen, their jaws, etc. I’m not sure it was one decision, but iterative over a lot of drafts. One thing for sure, is I kept trying to get more and more specific over the revision process. The enemy of horror is vagueness. You can choose not to show something, but you can’t be vague about it.
- Speaking of which, can you explain what was going on with the wires and their mouths throughout? I believe that snakes smell by opening their mouths (with their tongues, actually). Is that what was happening here? The wires are a form of mind control. Peter’s pheromones make his caregivers feel an ecstatic hunger drawing them to the sibling grubs down in the cellar. The wires keep her under control and turn her from a protector into a brainless, selfless caregiver (see next answer).
- I also wanted to ask you more about the boy, Peter. Is he actually a boy, or is he much older? There is some knowledge and dialogue toward the end that made me wonder who and what exactly he was. Why is he seeking the bones? Why does he want to eat the grubs (and his brother!)? Do elaborate, please. He’s a child. He’s not human though. The family members go through a metamorphosis from Grub > Pale Child (Peter) > Handsome Young Adult (Barchen) > Deteriorating Prematurely Aged Adult > Monster. I put lots of clues for this in the dining room scene. He wants to eat the grubs for the same reason many baby birds peck their siblings to death—get rid of the competition! Peter’s influence over Mimi and Helen make them want to eat them too, because under his influence they are 100% about Peter’s needs.
- I love the way you balance the humor and darker aspects in your work, in this story. Is that always a part of the give and take of your storytelling, allowing us a place to relax, breathe, and maybe pull in more humanity, more relatability, into the tale? That snark and attitude of Helen kept this story from getting bogged down in something historic, that could have been a bit dry, caught up in details. My initial versions of the story had a different Helen, who was much meeker (though still a lesbian). I had to give Helen more oomph to make the story work better. Often when one of my stories isn’t working, I have to change or tweak the main character.
- I also love the bit of sexuality / sensuality that you worked into this story, as well. Another layer to the story. Not to mention how Helen sees, and seeks out Mimi. It helps reveal her character (as well as Bärchen’s). Was this a conscious choice to work in their sexuality and identity? Yeah, totally conscious. The story is basically about how parenthood can often be a terrible thing for women, because it requires so much sacrifice of the self, and I wanted to emphasize that tragedy by the man and woman in it being emphatically non-sexual toward each other. Barchen knows he’s doing a terrible thing when he leaves Helen there, but he doesn’t think he has a choice. He has to find a replacement for Mimi before Mimi breaks free. It’s a horrible thing he does. Just horrible.
- The fact that the serpents / parents were guarding the salt mines, this being the family fortune, was quite compelling. Makes me wonder exactly how old they are, and whether they are the same creatures, or if this is a long line of destined beings. Can you talk about that a bit? They’re a long line of monsters who’ve been guarding the salt mines for generations. Salt mines used to be a huge source of Hapsburg money, and the monsters would be really good at keeping the mines safe.
- The ending! The slowly creeping hypnosis, the call of the cellar, and all that lurks there, and then the transformation of Helen. For an ending to truly resonate, for me, it not only has to build to something (usually a revelation), but there must be change, and then a denouement—something rippling out into the future—an understanding, an event, something both broadly terrifying and singularly unsettling. You do that well here, with all of the ways that Helen changes, and that last line of, “Oui.” BAM. So powerful. Can you talk about the ending, how much was plotted out, how much surprised you, and your decision to end it where you did? I often know my last line before I start writing. I always knew that would be the end, Helen taking Mimi’s place, and saying, “Oui.” The repetition is an effective technique, and it’s even more effective, I think, because it’s a foreign language to Helen. It emphasizes that her personality has really been degraded and subsumed.
- What’s next for you? Can you talk about stories, collections, or novels you may have coming out in 2019 so we can read more of your work? Thank you for your time and generosity here. I really appreciate it. I have a short-story coming out at The Verge in February. Last year was really great, with stories at Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and in the anthology Infinity’s End, and a big novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach from Tor.com, which came out as a book. I’ve been working on the sequel to that and it’s been going—not well. Second books, it turns out, are really HARD. Argh. But all I can do is just keep plugging away!!!
Provocative interview, Richard. Robson’s overall aesthetic is a hook unto itself.
Thanks! Appreciate it. Totally agree
At StokerCon I heard Ellen Datlow talk about this story in a panel discussion about working with editors. She mentioned this interview, and said, “I’d worked with Kelly on the story, and had no idea what some of the elements meant. I just kept asking, ‘What do you think is happening here’? This is amazing, first, that she had the humility to admit that, but second that the story works so well while still maintaining its air of mystery. That helps clarify the difference between writing and editing, but it also affirms what a great editor can do with great material. I love this ongoing conversation.
Thanks, David. I appreciate you sharing all of that. Definitely makes me feel better if Ellen had similar questions to mine LOL!