Interview with David Nickle

David Nickle is the Stoker-award winning author whose most recent novel, The 'Geisters, and most recent collection, Knife Fight and Other Struggles, are available from ChiZine.

David Nickle is the Stoker award-winning author whose The ‘Geisters and Knife Fight and Other Struggles are available from ChiZine.

My introduction to David Nickle’s fiction came a little over a decade ago when I borrowed a friend’s copy of the classic Canadian horror journal Northern Frights. I rediscovered Nickle’s work with ChiZine’s publication of his first short story collection, Monstrous Affections, a few years ago, and I loved these insidious, unsettling stories so much I quickly indulged a completist impulse and sought out the rest of Nickle’s books. Reading his fictions, I was often surprised but never disappointed. Nickle’s work is transgeneric, energetic, measured and inventive; it wears its many literary ancestors proudly, while at the same time relentlessly pushing beyond them into new speculative territory. –Sean Moreland

SM: Hello David, and many thanks for agreeing to this exchange! While you’re among the most ambitious, prolific and fascinating Canadian prose fictionists writing today (particularly in and around the horror genre) and many of our readers will doubtless be familiar with your fiction, I’d nevertheless like to start things off by asking you to introduce yourself, and give us what are, to your mind, the most vital facts about, achievements by, and opinions of, David Nickle?

DN: I’m a journalist by day—I work for the Metroland chain of community newspapers, covering Toronto City Hall by day, and many evenings. Over many other evenings, early mornings and weekends, I’ve been working at fiction. I’ve been publishing that since the early 1990s. Starting out, I had some success with short fiction and collaboration. Karl Schroeder and I collaborated on an Aurora-winning novelette, “The Toy Mill,” and turned that into what was the first novel for both of us, The Claus Effect. I also share a Bram Stoker award with Edo Van Belkom, for a nasty little story we wrote while working in the same newsroom, “Rat Food.”

I pushed along that way, writing and publishing short stories in smaller venues, occasionally doing well by it—one story, “The Sloan Men,” was adapted not-badly-at-all as an episode of The Hunger anthology horror series. But my wheels generally spun while I worked on long work and sold some short work, until Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi got ChiZine started. They were interested in a story collection, which turned into Monstrous Affections, my first collection. It did better than anyone honestly expected it to, and since then we have been locked in an unholy pact to publish a book or so a year for the past few years.

And here we are.

SM: I earlier described you as working “in and around the horror genre;” do you think this is a fair characterization? Do you identify most of your fiction with the label horror? What are your thoughts about horror as a genre, or about horror as a label for certain kinds of writing (and writers?)

DN: I’ve always been a bit uneasy with the idea of just writing horror. But I think it’s fair to say that I write a lot of horror. I’m interested in it—in the intense feelings it creates, in the expression of the uncanny, and in the sense of terrible awe that it can describe at its best. I’m also interested in other elements of fiction, though. I hang out with a lot of science fiction writers—hell, I’m engaged to a very good science fiction writer in Madeline Ashby—and I respect, and I hope try to apply, the rigor of thought-experiment that goes with that territory.eutopiacover

I like to think my love of the jump scare rubs off on them a bit too. Peter Watts and I spent a lot of early morning runs talking about the space vampire that helped make Blindsight the hard-sf screamfest that it is, and we spent many of those same mornings talking about the biology of the parasitic creatures at the heart of my first-published solo novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. Madeline Ashby, meanwhile, writes monstrously horrific moments into her novels and stories—I’m thinking particularly of the opening moments of iD—and loves the stuff in film and fiction even more than I do. We talked through a lot of the meta-horrific elements, and many of the naughty bits too, of my last book The ‘Geisters. My old friend and collaborator Karl Schroeder is as pure a science fiction writer as they come despite my best efforts. But you can’t win ’em all. I met Karl and Edo, and later Madeline, in a writer’s workshop founded by Judith Merril in the late 1980s. While the membership has changed over the years, the horror writers there have always been in the minority.

I’m a big believer in writing within a community—I think that we all are. But I think that there is a creative risk of writing within a homogenous community, where everybody practises and celebrates a very narrow element of their genre. It becomes an echo chamber, and can get a little too comfortable. I’ve always been most comfortable being in the minority in a larger community… so I’m able to pull ideas and techniques and aesthetics that I maybe didn’t bring to the table myself, and throw them in the mix.

SM: While it was a wonderful experience getting to converse with you at CanCon recently, I have to confess my disappointment that the projected panel on Stephen King’s achievements, influence and legacy didn’t work out. So I’d like to take this opportunity to get your thoughts on King’s importance. What do you think are King’s greatest achievements, as writer or popular cultural icon? What have been some of the longstanding effects of his tremendous popularity? Do you think his massive influence on popular 20th century fiction has been largely for good or ill?

DN: Stephen King is an interesting cat. To begin with, his influence is huge: from the middle 1970s on, he came to define American horror fiction, and also a certain kind of American popular fiction. That’s been good and bad. On the one hand, his particular brand of successful storytelling created a warp in publishing that was, overall, a dead-end for a lot of writers and readers.

But King performed a great service, particularly for young writers and readers: he was a remarkable synthesist. If you think about it, his early work was startlingly unoriginal. His short fiction in collections like Night Shift owed much to Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury; his early novels revisited Dracula and The Haunting of Hill House and others (The Shining is on one level a reconsideration of “Burnt Offerings”). The Stand is a great work on its own, but it harks back to “On The Beach” and The Day of the Triffids. Pet Sematary and “The Monkey’s Paw” may as well have been separated at birth.

If you were a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, you may not have been aware of all of these stories and books and films—or you may have known about some of them, but you wouldn’t have been able to see how they all fit together.

King fit them together, into a grand North American aesthetic of horror. He built a world around it, in fact, with Salem’s Lot and Castle Rock and ultimately the Dark Tower cycle—all sewn together in an allusive, intertextual and deeply interconnected body of work. I might be going a bit too far in saying that body has turned into a kind of Paradise Lost of modern horror. But what the hell; it’ll primp up the comment thread in this interview.

So sure. Stephen King is the John Milton of modern horror. There. Said it.

King - the John Milton of modern horror?

King – the John Milton of modern horror?

SM: More specifically, as you often cite King as one of your influences, how important has King and his work been to you as a writer, and how has he influenced your fiction?

DN: That answer flows from the last one: before I knew better, King helped guide me through at least the public part of the library of horror fiction—and also introduced me to a modern realist approach to character and setting (at a time when you couldn’t get me to go near Raymond Carver or John Cheever) and also showed me a good example of how to correctly pace a thriller.

A lot of the stories in Monstrous Affections show some of the lessons I learned from King: the domestic tensions in “The Sloan Men,” “Night of The Tar Baby” and the small-town nostalgia of “The Webley” all have roots in King’s work.


King’s Castle Rock world-building exercise also inspired me to create a little southwestern Ontario microcosm of horror, in the fictional town of Fenlan. It is vaguely located an hour or two’s drive from Georgian Bay, and also Toronto (which is to say, somewhere in between). “The Sloan Men” was the first Fenlan story; it is also a setting (or referenced) in “Janie and the Wind,” “The Nothing Book of the Dead,” “The Webley,” and The ‘Geisters.

SM: In his introduction to your impressive and deeply unsettling collection, Monstrous Affections (2009), Michael Rowe characterizes these stories as “Canadian gothic” fictions (defiantly acknowledging as he does so that this term has become too-often used and too narrowly defined in certain circles). What are your thoughts on the term Canadian gothic, both as potentially applicable to many of your own fictions, and as it is more widely (over)used?

DN: That’s a term that I’ve never been that comfortable with—although I’m happy to nod and wear it if someone kindly tries to put it on me. There are definitely gothic traditions that I’ve played with in a Canadian setting (particularly in the Fenlan stories). I suppose I could dig a little deeper, but ultimately, I tend to see gothic as a term that readers and writers with literary pretensions use in place of horror, to describe fiction that they think is a little better than all that.

SM: My first experience of your fiction came from reading a couple of your stories (“The Tar-Baby” and “Pit-Heads”) in the Canadian horror journal Northern Frights (which I’m sorry to admit I came to belatedly, borrowing a friend’s copies in the early 2000s.) Northern Frights served as a vital locus for Canadian writers and readers of horror and dark fantasy. How did your relationship with Northern Frights begin, and how did it develop? Any thoughts on or memories of the journal that you’d care to share?


DN: Don Hutchison and Northern Frights really created the Canadian horror scene: simple as that. My second published story, “Manifestations,” appeared in the first Northern Frights anthology. I actually met Don at a party at the Merril Collection, back when it was still called the Spaced Out Library and located in an old school building off St. George. Don was a soft-spoken gentleman documentary filmmaker at the time, and also a long-time fan of horror and pulp fiction. He had just successfully pitched an anthology of Canadian horror fiction to Mosaic Press in Toronto, and was looking about for writers. I was one of the hungry young horror writers that he found. It turned out to be a good fit; I was one of the few, if not the only, writer who had a story in each of the five anthologies. “The Sloan Men,” which made it to TV and a number of other reprints, was in the second. “The Summer Worms,” which is one of three older stories in my new collection Knife Fight and Other Struggles, was in the third.

In compiling those anthologies, Don did a real service to me and other writers looking for a place in the horror fiction world.

SM: “Pit-Heads” remains among my favourite of your short fictions, partially for its fascinating re-imagining of vampirism, partially for its potent evocation of a bleakly sublime Northern Ontario mining landscape, and partially for the ingenious ways this sublimity is both contained and counterpointed by its narrator’s initial second-hand perception of this landscape’s “entire Group-of-Seven, Tom-Thomson splendor.” Can you tell us a little about the story’s treatment of vampirism, its connection to artistic vision, and its connection to the Burtynskyesque setting?

DN: “The Pit Heads” was inspired by a bunch of paintings that my father, artist Lawrence Nickle, and stepmother, artist Roberta Havilland, had made during several trips to the town of Cobalt, Ontario in the 1970s. The paintings—of this ramshackle town built around these hulking pit-heads, tunnels honeycombing the rock underneath it all—showed me a place that was irresistible as a locale for something monstrous. And I think the fact that I mainly knew the place through the lens of a painter’s eye got me drawing connections.

So from there, I just started drawing parallels: between the idea of the kind of vampirism that sucks the blood of the innocent and the kind that draws wealth from the earth; and from the way that artists draw a more metaphysical substance from their subjects. In doing that, I did a bit of strip-mining of my father’s own experiences, going off on pleine-air painting adventures with colleagues and friends, the way that other men would go on hunting or fishing trips.

Lawrence Nickle, influential Canadian painter, passed away in January 2014 at the age of 84. Photo by David Nickle.

Lawrence Nickle, influential Canadian painter, passed away in January 2014 at the age of 84. Photo by David Nickle.

SM: I was struck by your meditations on your relationship with your father in the afterword to Knife Fight, and the parallels between his dedication to making a living through his painting and yours to making a living through writing. Can you tell us, more specifically, about some of the ways in which your father directly shaped your dedication to your craft, or some of the fiction you wrote during his lifetime? Any especially memorable instances of his input or criticism, or other instances where his painting gave rise to an ekphrasis of sorts in your writing?

DN: Ekphrasis. I am writing this on the subway with neither wifi nor my far-better-educated partner in life and crime Madeline Ashby at hand, so my usual practise of googling or asking Madeline about some of the very apt but kind of arcane lit-crit terms you are employing through this interview is hampered just now. But Google and Madeline are good jumping-off-points for quantifying the benefits that my father Lawrence Nickle brought to the table when it came to figuring out my fiction.

To begin with, Lawrence considered himself a staunch realist, both in art and life. But it wasn’t that simple. His paintings were nearly all objective in intent, but impressionistic in execution (I can think of one art object he made that was fanciful: an embossed copper depiction of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, which we used as a fireplace screen). He liked John Le Carre best, but could not resist a Peter Straub novel and liked quite a bit of Stephen King. I think he was attracted to both authors’ own brand of realism, and talking about that—the small intersection of aesthetic commonality he and I had—helped me come to understand the importance of grounding my own stories in realism.

Painting of Old Woman Bay on Lake Superior by Lawrence Nickle

Painting of Old Woman Bay on Lake Superior by Lawrence Nickle

I also cribbed more than a little from my dad’s more particular adventures and life-experiences. We’ve talked about “The Pit-Heads” already (when I showed him that one, dad first called me a bastard, and then admitted that I’d gotten most everything but the vampires right). We collaborated on illustrations for the collector’s edition of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. And the last story in my collection Monstrous Affections, “The Webley,” was drawn almost entirely from family lore, told to me by Lawrence and my uncle Graham in an ‘interview’ I did with both of them six years ago. I’d relay those stories to you now, but why not let them do that? Because I’ve finished this answer with an internet connection at my disposal, I can now dig up a link to the videos I put together.

One of Lawrence Nickle's illustrations for the collector's edition of David Nickle's Eutopia.

One of Lawrence Nickle’s illustrations for the collector’s edition of David Nickle’s Eutopia.

SM: Eutopia (2011) was the first novel you published, following closely on the heels of Monstrous Affections (2009), is that right? You’d been publishing short fiction for over twenty years by the time Eutopia hit print. Why do you think it took you so long to turn to novel-writing (or at least to novel publishing)?

DN: Two words: Rasputin’s. Bastards.

That novel, all 185,000 words, precipitated a major career logjam. I’d started it around the time that The Claus Effect was published and I’d won the Stoker, thinking Rasputin’s Bastards would be the next thing. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how people feel about the finished product, finally in print in 2013) it morphed from what was to be a simple little fantasy thriller into a gigantic epic psychic spy saga with the intricacy if not necessarily the brilliance of Gravity’s Rainbow. The long draft took years, and then it took years more to deal with what turned out to be some very unproductive advice, to cut the thing in half. As that malformed draft was dying the death of a thousand rejections, I set to work on Eutopia—which I again wrote too long, and that time redrafted to a more effective 115,000 words.

By the time these two things were ready, I’d pretty much exhausted the career-karma that the Stoker and The Claus Effect had given me, and was starting afresh—putting stuff out in the toxic pond that was the publishing industry in the middle-oughts. It was really only the success of Monstrous Affections that gave me an in to place Eutopia. And it was that book’s success that caused ChiZine to show interest in a doorstopper like Rasputin’s Bastards.

Take that, logjam.

SM: The two writers Eutopia brought simultaneously to my mind as I read it were H. P. Lovecraft and William Faulkner. Would you say there is a relationship between the work and vision of these two American writers and Eutopia, or am I merely bad-tripping?

DN: I have to confess not having read Faulkner, so I have to call you on at least half a bad trip. But Lovecraft was definitely in mind as I was working on Eutopia. In particular, I wanted to write a Lovecraftian novel that dealt with the racist anxieties that inform a lot of Lovecraft’s work, but from a progressive perspective.

I was also interested in dipping toe into the western genre, after having spent many long evenings main-lining Deadwood and old Sergio Leone movies: in particular as regards to the voice of it.

But the real inspiration was a non-fiction work that I picked up on a whim, War Against the Weak by Edwin Black. It’s pretty much the best historical survey of the American eugenics movement that you’re going to find. When I got into the early chapters, I realized I had to write a novel about this awful time.

SM: Eutopia is a massive, complex, and detailed piece of work, one that appears to have required a tremendous amount of research and delicate synthesis. The same is true of the two novels that followed quickly in its wake, Rasputin’s Bastards (2012) and (to a lesser extent in terms of length, if not in terms of research-intensiveness) The ‘Geisters (2013). How long had you been working on each of these novels prior to their publications?

DN: A long time for Rasputin’s Bastards—I started in the mid-1990s and kept at it for… years after that. Eutopia, for three or four years in the middle-oughts. The ‘Geisters was quicker—in fact, it didn’t involve very much research at all compared to the other two. I’d started it in 2009, set it aside for a little while then dove in fast to finish it up in time for a 2013 release.


SM: Were you working on one or more of them simultaneously? If so, did you find you had to combat a tendency for their fictional worlds to “bleed” into one another? Or were there ways in which their developing worlds fed one another?

DN: Nah, I tended to not work on them simultaneously. Any apparent cross-bleeding was strictly splatter.

SM: Do you, as their author, perceive any striking parallels, themes, or obsessions that they share?

DN: The three are in a lot of ways very different books: a historical science fiction-horror novel, a post-Cold-War fantasy spy thriller followed by an Ira Levin-esque psychosexual supernatural horror novel. I could be glib and say the common thread is inconsistency. But there are certain obsessions: inter-generational politics is there in all of them, as is the unreliability of our memories and therefore our identities. Sometimes I worry that I slip too easily into metaphysics. I come by that honestly, having been raised in a household that takes its metaphysics very seriously. But I know it pisses some readers off, particularly as I seem to do it at least five times per book.

SM: One of my own academicky projects over the last couple of years has involved writing about, and editing a collection that deals with, monstrous children in cinema, so I beg pardon if my own confirmation bias is at work here… But from Monstrous Affections (the quasi-childlike monster of “Night of the Tar Baby,” the eponymous “Other People’s Kids,” the disembodied antagonist of “The Mayor Will Now…”) to Rasputin’s Bastards (the Children) Knife-Fight (most notably, the titular villain/victim of “Drakeela Must Die”) and Eutopia (the alien, but still recognizably childlike, kin of the Juke), the Nickle-verse is infested by monstrous children. Any thoughts on why this is so? Hebephobias you’re exorcising? Cultural trends you’re exploring? Commonplace anxieties you’re exploiting?

DN: You know, one of my favourite horror novels of all time is Lord of the Flies, and it’s because of the kids: they are monsters, in many important ways. Children see the world entirely as it relates to themselves, and have to work a bit to move beyond the natural sociopathy that comes from inexperience—so I think they’re a natural for me. I like other stories about children too, sometimes when they’re not monsters, and rise above their bestial nature.

But for me, kids are as much a horror trope as zombies or vampires or haunted houses.

SM: I finished reading your latest novel The ‘Geisters recently, and was tremendously impressed. It is a real juggernaut of a novel, blending the pacing and dexterity of a good thriller with a potent mix of visceral shock and metaphysical speculation. Can you tell us a little about the origins and genesis of the novel?

DN: Thank you for that! I felt very insecure about The ‘Geisters through a lot of the draft—in a lot of ways, I felt it was a high-wire act of a book, mostly because of the gender issues that it raises.


I started out wanting to write a story about kink—the unhealthy and evil kind moreso than the saucy and playful kind. I was in particular thinking about Ira Levin’s novella The Stepford Wives—the way that he depicted powerful men’s erotic predilections as a motive for oppression, and the often unwarranted fearfulness of powerful women at the heart of it. And I was thinking about the broadening world of particularly unusual kink that the Internet has revealed over the last decade or two: tentacle porn, mind control fantasies and so on. That turned into a speculation exercise: what if poltergeists were real, and the girls who manifested them could be trained to keep them, to become bicameral brides for men whose real interest was in the ‘geists?

I also was interested in writing a protagonist that unlike Levin’s other great protagonist, the tragically passive Rosemary Woodhouse, had a bit more to her. So I made a point of building up Ann as having been a nerdy, Dungeons-and-Dragons playing kid grown up into an early-stage alcoholic, who was nevertheless able to use her imagination as a weapon. She doesn’t respond well to being gaslighted.

SM: The novel’s interpretation of poltergeist phenomena is quite compelling. How much research did you do into these phenomena, and how important were “real” historical poltergeist cases to your fictional treatment of it?

DN: I did a limited amount of research, and made most of it up. I went from a particular metaphysical conceit—which I won’t get into specifically, so as not to reveal some of the surprises in the novel—that I don’t think has been demonstrated in poltergeist research. But it served my purposes.

I also drew a great deal on some of my own experience with the ‘new age’ crowd growing up in the 1970s. My mother was very much involved in that movement (and still is), so many of the visualization strategies that Ann employs were drawn directly from that.

SM: It struck me that there was something distinctly Jungian about the novel’s metaphysics (I thought the same was also true of Rasputin’s Bastards, actually.) Has Jung or Jungian analytic psychology been a touchstone for you as a writer?

DN: I think you’re on to something there—although, at the risk of sounding flippant, it’s not always a conscious influence in that my formal exposure to Jung was in an undergrad course three decades ago, nearly.

But Jung does provide a mechanism for a lot of the fantastical things going on in my novels: there’s definitely something like the collective unconscious driving things in Rasputin’s Bastards, and as matters develop, The ‘Geisters too. Eutopia is more materialistic, or can be read that way, and the encounters with that substrata of consciousness might simply be a neurological phenomenon. But the characters in that one would probably benefit from a good sit-down with a psychoanalyst. Whether Freudian or Jungian would be better I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

I think that my real touchstone has been the New-Age thinking that has been itself heavily influenced by Jung. That kind of magical thinking has fascinated me on a number of levels for many years—so it’s not surprising that it should feature in my fiction. In the form of second- or third-generation Jung.

SM: While The ‘Geisters is startlingly original in its execution, it also admirably draws upon and re-imagines aspects of many earlier fictions, both literary and cinematic. Could you tell us about some of these fictional inspirations, how they are played with and how they play out in (The ones that spring most readily to my mind are King’s Carrie and Firestarter, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – which is explicitly referenced a number of times in the novel – and Matheson’s re-imagining of that novel with Hell House, but also films including Cronenberg’s Scanners and, even more so, The Brood.)

DN: the book to structurally and tonally be a bit of an ode to his late 1960s/early 1970s thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby/The Stepford Wives/The Boys From Brazil, and there are nods to each of those in the text. Carrie and Firestarter are influences too, but both of those thrillers have their antecedents in Levin (at least as I read them they do).

There are a number of explicit shout-outs to other texts: mostly as they inform the fetishes of the ‘Geisters. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was deconstruct the ‘jump scare’ in fetishistic terms—and for that, I assembled a reading list that includes Jackson, King, a bit of Matheson, to create a kind of Unified Theory of Fear.

For better or worse, I wanted to operate a little metafictionally with The ‘Geisters: I was interested in inverting the notion that became embedded in the Comics Code in the 1950s, that a fascination with horror stories might lead impressionable children into a kind of mental illness. Or in the case of the ‘Geisters, full-on, Hellfire-Club-level perversion. So those textual references were essential.

SM: So the ‘Geisters are Fredric Wertham’s nightmare-come-true! That’s fantastic! Another of the things that I tend to associate with your novels (less so your short fiction) is the adoption, and the relentless transformation, of popular fictional modes and genres. For example, Rasputin’s Bastards is in many ways a political thriller, but one recombined with aspects of historiographic metafiction and a weird sensibility; Eutopia is both historical drama and (u/dys?)topian novel, but horror is never far from its heart. How deliberately and consciously do you work with, or within, or against, the perceived boundaries of genre in your fictions?

DN: I have a gut-level discomfort with pure genre that I’ve never properly examined. If I were to take a stab at it now, I’d have to guess that when I think about writing a “science fiction” or “horror story,” I’m overwhelmed by antecedents and have difficulty finding the story that’s actually worth it to me to tell. I know a lot of my early attempts at horror and science fiction tended to fall into pastiche. I have on various floppy disks really terrible pastiches of Lucius Shepard, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman… H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King… all because I was thinking more about placing the piece in Asimov’s, or Twilight Zone Magazine or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and thereby assuming my place in the pantheon.

As I’ve matured a bit as a writer, I’ve come to realize that the things I love about category-style genre fiction are in the details, not necessarily in the whole of it. So in Eutopia, for instance, I researched it as a historical novel, imagined it as a science fiction novel and wrote it like a horror novel.

In Rasputin’s Bastards, I took my love of elements of Le Carre and Fleming and mingled that with Ted Sturgeon’s now-out-of-fashion psionic science fiction, and freed myself in terms of plot and character and digression using Neal Stephenson and Thomas Pynchon as permission. It’s quite conscious.

 SM: It’s fascinating that psionic sci-fi (which seems to be to have peaked in literature in the 50s and 60s, with writers like Sturgeon and Heinlein, and in film in the 80s, with movies like The Fury and Scanners, apropos of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s [2010] overt 80s homage) seems to have fallen out of favour in the 21st century. Certainly there are exceptions, but in general, as you’ve pointed out, psionics don’t seem to be as culturally generative at present. Any thoughts on why this might be so?

DN: That’s a good question. An easy answer might come from the observation that for a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s, the question of whether paranormal experiences had any basis in science was unexplored, and theories of the mind had developed without benefit of the neuroscience that informs our understanding of brain function and so on now. So Ted Sturgeon could delve into a kind of Jungian hive mind with More than Human, and Larry Niven, a self-professed hard science fiction writer, could include telekinetics, mind-readers and magically lucky people as a part of his nuts-and-bolts Known Space worlds.MoreThanHumanCover

Knowing what we know now, it’s a lot harder to justify a psychic continuum that’s not just the elaborate magic systems that inform, say, the Harry Potter novels. It is possible that science fiction never left psionics behind, but it was the other way around…

SM: I have to confess I haven’t read much Theodore Sturgeon, although have been meaning to read More Than Human for some time. Instead, the first thing that sprang to my mind in terms of the puppet-mastering psychic conspiracy in Rasputin’s Bastards was Dan Simmons’ (also latter-day Cold War-era) novel Carrion Comfort. Have you read it?

Carrion Comfort

DN: I have read it, and I’ll cop to having been very aware of it as I was working on Rasputin’s Bastards. Some of the ideas—mostly involving the perversity of puppet-master mind control—were certainly jumping-off points for Rasputin’s Bastards. There were some scenes in particular—the human chess game, for instance—that definitely stuck with me as I was writing that book, and to the extent that I could, I tried to steer clear of the parts of the idea that were already well-mined by Simmons.

SM: While it has some surface similarities, Carrion Comfort is much more a straight-up horror novel than Rasputin’s Bastards. To my mind, one of the things that makes Rasputin’s Bastards more effective as speculative fiction is the vivid, inventive, but also systematic way you develop the psionic experiences in the novel. Aside from Sturgeon, what were some of the things that informed your conceptions?

DN: Sturgeon, Simmons… also William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, and the way they turned ‘cyberspace’ into a kind of psychic playground. I was interested in creating a mental landscape that was also informed by memory, and showing memory to be the malleable medium that I understand it to be.

SM: I am particularly intrigued by the meta-language the novel uses for its psionics – metaphor, Discourse and so on. Why did you decide to use terms redolent of structural linguistics and rhetoric to characterize the novel’s psionics?

DN: That speaks to my interest in memory—and the way language and rhetoric are able to alter it. George Orwell’s foundational concept of Newspeak, a language that undermines then redefines the foundations of reality, has always struck me as a powerful meme, and I wanted to explore it closer to the core of reality: the utterly subjective. The characters in Rasputin’s Bastards ultimately experience all of their reality (or in most cases, their many realities) through a filter of metaphor, and in a couple of cases properly metafictional experiences.

In practical, in-story terms, the characters use the term metaphor because that is what they need to manipulate the abstract and ultimately mysterious mechanisms of their psychic abilities. I’ve never accessed those mechanisms myself, but if I did I think I would have an easier time of it if as I telekinetically moved a teacup from one chair to the next, I understood myself to be using an invisible arm. Which of course would be a metaphor for the numinous thing I was actually doing.

SM: When working with and within the perceived conventions of genre fiction, a writer risks running afoul of the expectations of readers as far as those conventions are concerned. Is this something you’ve experienced?

DN: I’ve experienced it less than I’ve feared. But I fear I may have encountered it more than I can experience.

I’ve got a small but loyal readership that follows along from story collection to historical horror to psychic spy to kinky poltergeist novel with a level of open-mindedness for which I am profoundly grateful. I’ve got a somewhat larger readership (at least based on Goodreads metrics) that are drawn to one novel or another but not all of them. Eutopia, for instance, remains quite popular after three years in the world; Rasputin’s Bastards has divided readers, with some quite engaged with the narrative game I’m playing, and others properly put-off by the complexity and foul language.

There are people who really dug that complexity and foul language who were disappointed by the relatively straightforward spook story that is The ‘Geisters. I sometimes wonder how it would have been if I’d just written a series of more accessible psychic spy novels (as at one point I was considering) and built a concrete set of fulfilled expectations to draw and maintain a readership.

Then I look in the mirror, and realize it just isn’t going to happen. Not any time soon.

SM: As a student and sometimes perhaps even cultish devotee of Poe, I am obsessed with the centrality of “effect” and atmosphere in fiction. A conversation in which we discussed the (de)merits of the film Beyond the Black Rainbow (as I recall, I loved its very-loosely plotted atmospheric homage, while you were much less impressed) led me to think we may have very different ideas about the role of atmosphere in fiction (both cinematic and literary), and how important it is. So I’d like to probe you a little about this.

Cosmatos's 2010 homage to paranoid 80s cinematic psychedelia impressed me more than it did Nickle.

Cosmatos’s 2010 homage to paranoid 80s cinematic psychedelia impressed me more than it did Nickle.

First off, what does atmosphere mean to you, where literary and cinematic fictions are concerned? Are there any stories, books, or films that you think are especially noteworthy in terms of their conjuration and sustaining of atmosphere?

DN: I think atmosphere is a very important element in the sustenance of both life, and fiction: which is to say, you can’t have either of those without also having atmosphere. In fiction, I tend to associate atmosphere with voice—which is to say the subjectivity that gives dimension to physical elements of setting. By itself, an empty resort hotel in winter is just that: a big building covered in snow. But, by way of example, when you put an angry alcoholic there with a sensitive son and a just-getting-by wife, the setting is at once infused. Similarly, Hill House is just a house made by incompetent carpenters, until Shirley Jackson arrives, omniscient and ominous, to speak of it in her earnest, half-mad tones. And of course H.P. Lovecraft’s magnificently flawed prose is all about atmosphere, and effect. Madeline Ashby and I played a little game awhile back, where we tried to recast the opening of “ The Call of Cthulhu” in the prose style of Ernest Hemingway. It was surprisingly effective—but it utterly transformed the story in theme and effect.

It’s a bit different in film—that being a visual medium, wherein light and shadow and literal atmospherics, the juxtaposition of objects, the application of music can do the job of voice. A living room sofa can be a place of refuge or a menacing haunt, depending on where the camera sits in relation to the light.

SM: How important is atmosphere for you as a writer? How conscious are you of it during the writing process? (How) do you work to create and sustain it? Which of your fictions do you think are the most successful in terms of their atmosphere?

DN: For me, it’s actually a combination of cinematic visualization and focussed narrative voice. I need to imagine the place and then interrogate the voice I’ve chosen for the narrative as to how it might respond to that. The voice has to get it right: the reader has no access to the movie playing in my head, so it’s only what I speak and suggest and imply.

I’d say offhand that Eutopia is the most successfully atmospheric: I paid a lot of attention to the inner voice of my two main protagonists as it fit with the omniscient narration, and took care with the cadence of the language, aiming for a balance that would suggest 1911 vernacular while still remaining accessible to modern readers. It was a trick, and I’m very pleased with the parts of the manuscript where I feel I pulled it off.

 SM: We’re very pleased to be able to reprint one of your hard-to-find early fictions here on the site for our readers. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration, context, and print history behind “Manifestations?”

DN: “Manifestations” was my second published story, and my first published horror story, back in the early 1990s. It appeared in Don Hutchison’s Northern Frights anthology, the first volume. I’m proud to have started there. Northern Frights was probably the first indication that something called Canadian horror might exist, and for five volumes Don tended the garden until it turned into what it is today. It was also adapted as part of not one but two different audiobooks: one of which was narrated by R.H. Thompson.

The story itself is a bit of a Twilight-Zone thing written long after the TV series, magazine and second TV series, and an X-Files thing written not too long before the X-Files started up. Like all the best horror fiction (and my ChiZine editor and sometime hog-horror author Brett Savory will back me up on this), it features a very big pig.

Sean Moreland is founder and fiction editor at Postscripts to Darkness, and a part-time English professor at the University of Ottawa.

%d bloggers like this: