The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven, edited by Ellen Datlow, is out today. LOVE that cover art. It includes work by Laird Barron, Joe Hill, John Langan, and Gemma Files, among others, as well as “Golden Sun,” a novelette I co-wrote with Kristi DeMeester, Michael Wehunt, and Damien Angelica Walters. Pick up your copy today!
So, wow, this is a dream come true. For the past eleven years, one of my white whales, those elusive goals, has been to make it into The Best Horror of the Year, and it’s finally happened. (I’ve been long-listed seven times.) I’ll be in Volume Eleven, out in September of this year. It’s for a shared narrative that I wrote with Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt, entitled “Golden Sun.” This novelette, which was in Chiral Mad 4 (edited by Michael Bailey and Lucy A. Snyder, and published by Written Backwards) was quite a challenge. We talked about how we should not only link our stories, but do something fresh and different. I mentioned the idea of us writing a “Rashomon” (based on the 1950 movie directed by Akira Kurosawa)—four perspectives on a singular event, each with their own truth on what happened. We each got a member of a family—mother, father, daughter, and son. The missing piece was the daughter in the middle—literally missing. We talked about setting—forests, houses, asylums—this was about chirality after all, but pushed hard to set it somewhere that wasn’t expected—the beach, in the daytime. It was not easy, but I knew that by working with three very talented authors, three of my favorite writers working today, we had a chance to do something special. So to see the recognition from Ellen Datlow, for us to make it into this anthology—well, it’s thrilling, an honor.
Full TOC below:
- I Remember Nothing by Anne Billson
- Monkeys on the Beach by Ralph Robert Moore
- Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley
- Shit Happens by Michael Marshall Smith
- You Know How the Story Goes by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
- Back Along the Old Track by Sam Hicks
- Masks by Peter Sutton
- The Donner Party by Dale Bailey
- Milkteeth by Kristi DeMeester
- Haak by John Langan
- Thin Cold Hands by Gemma Files
- A Tiny Mirror by Eloise C. C. Shepherd
- I Love You Mary-Grace by Amelia Mangan
- The Jaws of Ouroboros by Steve Toase
- A Brief Moment of Rage by Bill Davidson
- Golden Sun by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt
- White Mare by Thana Niveau
- Girls Without Their Faces On by Laird Barron
- Thumbsucker by Robert Shearman
- You Are Released by Joe Hill
- Red Rain by Adam-Troy Castro
- Split Chain Stitch by Steve Toase
- No Exit by Orrin Grey
- Haunt by Siobhan Carroll
- Sleep by Carly Holmes
Part Two of my group interview with Brian Hodge continues, with his second story in The Best Horror of the Year—quite the accomplishment. Read on!
“It’s All the Same Road in the End”
(Originally in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.)
QUESTION ONE: You begin with a cool, mysterious opening, then you proceed with a lot of backstory about the grandfather. Often, we are advised to not go too far into backstory, but in this case it really worked. Why did you decide to include so much, in a sense risking taking us out of the story? (And presume an editor/teacher would urge us to cut. So feel free to include any decisions you thought might be “breaking the rules.”) I’m wondering how you felt confident that it worked, and why you thought that as well.
ANSWER ONE: I don’t think you risk taking the reader out of the story when the past is so vital to the present that, without it, there wouldn’t be a present at all. It’s all the same story in the end, too. With this one, everything hinges on the events of fifty-odd years ago, so it’s imperative to understand what happened, or as much as the modern characters know of it. The reader has to know what drives them, what haunts them, what pulls at them and repels them. Without that, they’re just going through a set of prescribed motions that aren’t fully motivated. And even though Old Will, the grandfather, isn’t an active character, it felt important that he still be a presence and, ultimately, his voice be heard. History is repeating itself, generationally speaking … it’s just that nobody realizes that until it happens.
So the key is marbling the past throughout the active present, and optimally at the point at which its influence becomes most relevant, rather than front-loading things too heavily. Or trying to show things strictly chronologically. The onion metaphor is good here. You keep peeling those layers back. The past and the present continue to unfold together, and you see the membranes of connective tissue.
QUESTION TWO: How do you manage to make all that backstory interesting and “in the moment” even though it’s all memory? Are there techniques you suggest we try to avoid info-dumps but still feel vital to the story?
ANSWER TWO: I’ve addressed some ways of handling backstory in earlier questions, but another thing that occurs to me is that I try to render it in such a way that, instead of being dry, inert data, it’s more interactive for the characters. Like, it’s provoking some sort of emotional reaction or an intellectual conundrum, or it sets up a conflict in values. Anything like that. Ideally, you make it clear that this past stuff is something that strongly impacts the characters’ lives here and now. When it’s clear that what happened then matters to what happens now, or what happens next, it’s going to be more compelling.
QUESTION THREE: If you don’t mind, how long did this take you to write and edit? Do you plan it all out ahead of time, or pants through? Some writers might dance with a short story for months or more, how did this one unfold for you?
ANSWER THREE: I don’t remember how long it took, exactly. Somewhere between two and three weeks sounds about right. I didn’t plan everything out in advance, but I did have a decent idea of the general arc. With just about everything I tend to fall somewhere between plotting and pantsing. Like, I’ll have a sense of story or character arcs, and have in mind certain milestones, but there’s still room to figure other stuff out and surprise myself along the way, as most everything else develops more organically.
QUESTION FOUR: How much pre-planning and sketching do you do for characters in short stories? Do you give them more, or less, or different treatments than in a novel? For example, one brother starts out kind of a mama’s boy talking to her all the time, and the other seems more independent, yet their roles seem to invert at the end. Did you fully “know” these brothers, or did they evolve as you wrote?
ANSWER FOUR: It varies, but I give them a few paragraphs in my notes, at least, and more for characters in novels than in shorter works. I like to feel I know them well enough to get rolling, and then, as with any relationship, get to know them better as we spend more time together. That way, they have their own autonomy. They’re open to surprising me instead of being puppets that always have to do what I say. Like, with Young Will, the younger brother, I had no idea he was going to stay behind until right before he did.
The ideal place to reach—and it happens more with novels than with shorter stuff, because of the duration and investment of time—is where the characters start meeting you halfway and doing some of the work. I can usually count on it happening around 60 or 80 or 100 pages in. Sit down at the desk in the morning and it’s like calling a team meeting: “What’s everybody up to today? Really, you’re sure? Okay, I can get on board with that.” And off we go. That’s a great place to get to. Everything feels so warm and alive then.
QUESTION FIVE: Regarding planning out a story…do you know you want to leave clues like the photo of the woman, the cattle call of the song as you wrote this, or did you pepper those in later, after a draft or two? We thought those types of clues were the primary reason we found the backstory interesting, little compelling bursts of weird and unsettling clues. Really, really well done.
ANSWER FIVE: None of those were later drop-ins. All of that I knew about before I ever started writing anything. That’s not to say I never go back and weave elements in later. But in general, I like to do as much of the heavy lifting upfront as possible, so that the revision process is more about refinement and pruning and fine-tuning things to as high a degree as I can manage. That’s just the way I work, what works best for me.
QUESTION SIX: Where did the idea of this story come from? And the woman, the hag, or alien, or Baba Yaga, or whatever she was—is that based on a story you heard, legend, myth? Ditto for the calling/culling song.
ANSWER SIX: It came from what turned out to be a Photoshop manipulation of an old picture I found online, tarted up with a caption that it was the last photo taken by some folklorist who went missing. But it was really evocative, and totally sparked my imagination, so I kept it around on my hard drive for a few years until I felt ready to use it as the springboard for something that could go way beyond what the caption suggested.
The cattle call? That’s a real thing…an ancient thing, actually. The Swedish word is kulning. You can find examples of it on YouTube. I first encountered it at the beginning of a compilation CD of Nordic folk music called Wizard Women of the North. And other places since then…like black metal artist Amalie Bruun, who records as Myrkur, did it at the beginning of her 2017 album, Mareridt. It’s a lovely sound, and I would imagine it’s quite haunting at a distance, lilting over the fields and through the trees. I thought it would be an obvious reference point for the descendants of Swedish settlers in the area—they’re hearing something that’s sort of like it, but not really, and they can tell something’s wrong with the woman doing it, because the intensity of it is absolutely terrifying.
QUESTION SEVEN: There were some haunting moments in here that really were dependent on setting and sensory details. This is always important in my work. I’m thinking of how you show Daisy, the meteorite, and how they change after touching it. Is this a conscious choice, and do you consider yourself a maximalist? A choice of genre? Just your style? Or do you pick the moments to unpack and slow down, to immerse your readers? (Or all of the above! LOL). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of setting and sensory detail, especially in horror.
ANSWER SEVEN: A few years ago I began regarding the dichotomy of minimalist and maximalist as personally irrelevant, and started thinking of myself as a muscularist. Yeah, it’s a made-up word. I guess it was in a review, although I don’t remember of what, or where I saw it, and someone used the phrase “tight, muscular prose” to describe whichever work of mine they were covering. And I really liked that. I liked the metaphor of words as muscle tissue. It was also appealing because I’m avid about working out, with an emphasis on things like functional fitness and strength and movement.
If you think about a well-toned body, you recognize that muscle density isn’t the same everywhere. In some places it may be very lean; in other places it may be bigger and bulkier. It’s what it needs to be according to its function within the whole system, and ideally, going from one area to another, it’s all nicely contoured. There’s a visual flow.
So if you apply that metaphor to prose, then you start thinking about the functional fitness of lines and paragraphs. If you have something that’s necessary but easily conveyed, or transitional, you keep it streamlined. But if you need to, say, take the reader inside an intense emotional state, or weave various setting and sensory details that work together to create a mood or atmosphere, which in turn affects the psychological state of the reader, you go heavier, and build up a passage that flexes harder, so it can hit harder.
Ideally, too, whatever the word volume is, it’s tight and compact, not flabby. Even before the muscularist term occurred to me, I was already thinking of the later revision process, looking for more words to cut, as sweating off ounces. My ultimate goal is that, however many words there are, they all survived, and are there, for a reason.
Last year I taught two of Brian Hodge‘s stories in my Advanced Creative Writing workshop, online. They were both pretty amazing. One of my students (Ian Vogel) reached out to Brian, and the next thing I knew we were sending him questions, and talking in depth about his stories. This is something I do with my Contemporary Dark Fiction class, but not so much with the ACWW (because our two-hour slots are usually full, and I don’t know all of the authors in the anthologies). But when we had an opening in our schedule, we decided to send him some questions. And we got some amazing answers in return.
I’ve become a huge fan of Brian’s work over the last couple of years, and he has really pushed me to write better—to take chances with my stories. (Note: funny story—my first professional sale, “Stillness,” was to Cemetery Dance for Shivers VI, and I just happened to publish alongside…you guessed it…Brian Hodge. (As well as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Kealan Patrick Burke, Brian Keene and a bunch of other hacks.)
I hope you enjoy the Q&A here.
“On These Blackened Shores of Time”
(Originally in Children of Lovecraft, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Nine. Both were edited by Ellen Datlow.)
QUESTION ONE: I love how you handle backstory, with the history of coal counties sprinkled in throughout the story. You don’t over describe the protag but give us enough to know him. But the weight of history was masterful. Is there a decision tree you use or a set of “filters” you use to choose meaningful backstory? Such as you might construct something meticulously for specific reasons, whereas some of us stumble into ways of handling backstory. (Speaking only for myself, hah.)
ANSWER ONE: It primarily comes down to what’s relevant, and what’s intrinsically connected over time. You have to know the history of your world, however small it may be, or discover it for yourself. If there’s any filter, it’s answering some form of this question: “If I didn’t include this, or if I pulled this out, would things stop making sense? Would they weaken, or not hang together as well?”
In this piece, it’s two tragedies that are linked over nearly a century, through cause and effect. There’s one timeframe in which competing agendas, and baser emotions like prejudice and anger and greed end up creating one tragedy. Even 90+ years later it’s not completely over and done with…the original tragedy is still unfolding when it breaks through into the modern day and creates another tragedy among people who had no idea about the first one. Then, underneath them both, there’s this mystery that goes back maybe hundreds of millions of years, and exerted its own mechanistic influence.
I think of backstory, a lot of times, as answering fairly simple questions and providing logical motivations. Like, here’s why Character A has this phobia; here’s why Character B hates Character C. It provides context so their actions don’t seem arbitrary. But with this particular novelette, I think the past goes beyond backstory, because it’s more complex, with a lot of different elements that are integrated and interrelated. Anywhere you go on this planet, the same geographical location encompasses vast layers of time, some of which have left a residue. And in this particular spot, they happened to line up and interact with each other not just across decades, but over geological timescales. So that requires a lot of detail.
QUESTION TWO: The ending was heartbreaking. I think most authors would have tried to save the boy and kill the grub-man. You did the opposite. Why did you make those choices?
ANSWER TWO: Oddly enough, perhaps, I don’t consider that a choice I consciously made. I’ve seen written works described as creations that are less constructed from scratch than unearthed like artifacts. That’s what this was like, so where it ultimately went seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. It felt all along like, hey, this is what happened—now, how can I relate it with as much feeling as possible?
A couple of clarifications. The sole surviving miner you call the grub-man…his form has actually become that of a labyrinthodont. That’s a general subclass of amphibians that were some of the more dominant forerunners to the dinosaurs. And nobody’s saving him. He’s asking for death and Trevor is about to deliver, although not out of anger or vengeance, but compassion.
QUESTION THREE: You avoid a lot of tropes with both Lovecraft’s oeuvre and your own backstory and character choices in your stories. How consciously do you make those decisions? This might be one of the most “humane” Lovecraft-inspired stories I’ve read.
ANSWER THREE: It feels less about making conscious decisions than about my fundamental approach. I’m not trying to mimic, or replicate, either in content or style. I’m just trying to be as authentically myself as possible, even when what I’m working on is like coming over to play in someone else’s yard. So that means carrying in my usual fascinations and obsessions and concerns and sense of aesthetics and so on. Several years ago I was hired to write a novel in the Hellboy universe, and after it came out, I remember seeing reactions like, “It feels like one of his other novels,” as if there was some surprise about that. Well, yeah. Because I’m trying to give you the best version of what I’m uniquely capable of, rather than an imitation of someone else that would probably miss the mark.
QUESTION FOUR: You nail some major universal themes in this story: familial loss, loneliness, the primal fear of the dark and the power of nature. Did that happen organically or was it more constructed?
ANSWER FOUR: It’s hard to establish themes upfront, like a checklist. It’s more likely that you recognize them in hindsight, once you have a completed work. In this instance, these themes arose naturally out of taking the core ideas and pursuing them where they led and massaging them into shape.
There was more real-world stuff that fed into this than you might’ve guessed. Five years ago, here in Colorado, we really did have a 1000-year flood. More than a year later, right in front of a friend’s house, the street really did collapse beneath one of his neighbors, as the guy was leaving for work. The entire neighborhood really did have no idea they were living over a mine from the 1920s, and it really had been closed in the shoddiest possible way, and the shaft really was washed out from below by floodwaters. Plus both my grandfathers were miners back in Illinois, and the brother of one of them really was involved in violent riots when scabs were brought in during a strike.
So that was a lot of raw material already, and it was easy to start asking the kind of fruitful questions that take you somewhere: What if Don’s neighbor hadn’t come safely out of the hole? What if the hole was much deeper? What if there was a whole mutant ecosystem down there? What would be the worst-case scenario of losing someone down a shaft like that, and what would it do to everyone involved?
But after you start coming up with answers for yourself, it’s real, thinking, feeling beings that have to embody the experience, and find out these answers for themselves. It becomes a matter of going as deep as you can to weave as strong a tapestry as possible out of all the sorrow and hope and grief and fear and longing and anger that would inherently arise out of such a situation. No matter how fantastical the premise may be, to me, it still has to be grounded in plausible human experiences. Does that part feel genuine? If it does, then I think it goes a long way in selling the rest.
QUESTION FIVE: I wrote in my notes, “Goddamn it, Brian can make mine history tense, how does he do it?” So…do you have any techniques you can share as to how you create tension and build the intensity in your stories?
ANSWER FIVE: The biggest favor you could do for yourself is to Google the concept of “micro-tension” as proposed and expounded upon by Donald Maass, and read whatever you can find that he has to say about it. Or, better yet, get some of his books on fiction writing, because he really does know his stuff. He’s a literary agent, but before that, he was a published author and an editor, so he’s in the unique position of being able to analyze how fiction works, and understand the whole business aspect of it all, from three different professional perspectives.
In a nutshell, micro-tension is the continual infusion of unease within a scene, that will pull the reader along because of the sense that all is not right. It doesn’t have to be anything overt. It can verge on the subliminal. It can be implemented with elements as granular as word choice, observations about the setting or environment, dialogue that implies things that aren’t being said…so many ways of doing it, really, and the beauty of it is that it can be applicable to any genre you happen to be writing in.
So I definitely rely on that, along with a grab bag of other approaches. In this particular piece, there was an escalating sense of what was at stake, and what was waiting to be found at the end of the parents’ search. Throughout, there were layers of mysteries, as things continued to unfold. And I strived to use those techniques to build a mounting sense of dread, that whatever was coming, it couldn’t be good … and then ultimately tried to make it even worse than you might have expected.
You’ll also notice that I broke that extensive mine history into two chunks. I initially wrote it as a single scene, a story-within-a-story, but then it seemed too long, too much at once. So I found a good split point, and put a family scene in between them, which itself ended on a cliffhanger of sorts: “What have you done?” So, as the reader, you keep leapfrogging through.
QUESTION SIX: Picking up on [the previous] questions about universal themes, one thing that really impressed me about this story was how it put the concepts of deep time and old ones into a human context. How did you hit these cosmic notes while at the same time keeping the story focused on the bonds of family and real human emotion? That is something I have not seen much of in cosmic horror. The last line really sealed this as a story about real people.
ANSWER SIX: Characters have always been my top focus. I’ve always considered them Priority One. I consciously made that decision at the very beginning, when I got serious about writing, my first few months out of college. I figured that if the reader was invested in the characters, that’s the thing I could always count on that would pull them through, regardless of what genre I was writing in. It would be universally transferable. So even though I may be hitting those cosmic notes, they’re still seen through the eyes, and challenging the perceptions, of the characters.
QUESTION SEVEN: What prompted some of your choices about the family—the jobs the parents have, the role reversal with the mother, and the ways they handled the situation?
ANSWER SEVEN: Over the past decade, I’ve trained in and practiced Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces. For a couple of more advanced weekend intensives, one of our guest trainers brought in was a body language expert and special squads operator from the California Highway Patrol. Fascinating guy, and the stuff he imparted was riveting. I usually find that with training like that, I want to know more, and one thing leads to something else, and further resources.
So, for these characters, the father’s career path was loosely inspired by a former FBI agent and nonverbal communication specialist named Joe Navarro, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some badass women instructors. Drawing on all that, I thought these two would make an interesting couple, with a promising dynamic, and not a pair you’re likely to have seen before in this context. They could plausibly get shit done, because they wouldn’t be rendered helpless by an overpowering situation. Plus I liked the idea of Ginny, the mother, being the true prime mover here, because, being purely into defense and counter-offense, she actually feels less bound by the law than Trevor, the father. She’d be the one to tell you that it’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six, so for the sake of those you love, always respond accordingly.
QUESTION EIGHT: You do a great job with the inciting incident and narrative hook at the start (both broadly intriguing and appealing, as well as relating to the specific incident, and how it personally resonates) as well as the ending, the climax, resolution, change, and denouement. Do you have any advice on how to connect those elements? What’s your process? (Start with hook, write it later, when it all comes together, plot ending, or organically let it develop?)
ANSWER EIGHT: Really, I can’t improve on the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone broke down the way they approach their scripts for South Park. Instead of “this happened, and this happened, and then this happened,” they think in terms of “this happened, so this happened, and therefore this happened.” Or “this happened, but then this happened, so this happened.” These may look similar, but there’s a vital distinction. Instead of a string of events that you hope connect, it’s that as a storyline progresses, everything emerges as a consequence of the actions and the decisions that have gone before. So there’s a logical through-line, even if it doesn’t seem obvious as you’re first encountering it. Everything else is mainly world-building and being true to the characters.
PART TWO tomorrow: “It’s All the Same Road in the End.” Visit Brian at his WEBSITE or TWITTER or AMAZON.
Thrilled that my stories, “Repent” (in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories) and “The Offering on the Hill” (in Chiral Mad 3) were both honorable mentions / long-listed for Best Horror of the Year. Both anthologies were also nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Wow, what an honor, thrilled. Thank you Michael Bailey, Doug Murano, and D Alexander Ward for the continued support, faith, and guidance. Onward and upward!
Well, here’s some great news. My story, “From Within” was just named a 2016 Notable Story by storySouth, as part of the Million Writers Award. In great company. This story was originally published in Slave Stories: Scenes from the Slave State (Omnium Gatherum) edited by Chris Kelso, and reprinted at Cease, Cows. Thanks, H.L. Nelson and Kate Jonez for the support. (It was also long-listed for Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.) Nice way to end the year!