The Conscious Interview, with David Nickle

To repur­pose Stephen King’s oft-repeat­ed rec­om­men­da­tion of Dan Sim­mons, I am in awe of David Nick­le. An author vast of tal­ent and thick of beard, Nick­le has burst onto the Cana­di­an hor­ror scene with a num­ber of ChiZine releas­es over a very short time, all of which show­case a writer unafraid to take chances. His nov­el Eutopia is bril­liant­ly orig­i­nal hor­ror, Rasputin’s Bas­tards is a spy thriller unlike any oth­er (it has psy­choki­ne­sis and squids!), The ‘Geis­ters is a ghost­ly ghost sto­ry, and Mon­strous Affec­tions is as good as short hor­ror fic­tion gets. He’s eas­i­ly among the best in the genre out there today, and I’ll hearti­ly punch your nieces and nephews in the kid­neys if you dis­agree.

The offi­cial bio:

Author and Pro­fes­sion­al Beard Mod­el David Nick­le

David Nick­le is a Toron­to-based author and jour­nal­ist whose fic­tion has appeared in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies like Ceme­tery DanceThe Year’s Best Fan­ta­sy and Hor­ror, the North­ern Frights and Queer Fear series. Some of it has been col­lect­ed in his book of sto­ries, Mon­strous Affec­tions. His first solo nov­el, Eutopia: A Nov­el of Ter­ri­ble Opti­mism, led the Nation­al Post to call him “a wor­thy heir to the man­tle of Stephen King.” His most recent nov­el, Rasputin’s Bas­tards, was called super­nat­ur­al eeri­ness at its best. [ED: This bio didn’t include The ‘Geis­ters, a nov­el that spurred The Toron­to Star to pro­claim that “few writ­ers do psy­cho­sex­u­al hor­ror as well as David Nick­le.”] He also works as a reporter, cov­er­ing Toron­to munic­i­pal pol­i­tics for a chain of com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­pers.

Describe your lat­est release in a tweet.

The ‘Geis­ters: love, ter­ror and the mod­ern mar­riage. #TOpol­ter­geist

Now, describe it as a movie pitch.

Think Rosemary’s Baby, with the role of Rose­mary played by Car­rie White.

Now, as a new Tintin book.

Tintin on the Bench: When Tintin accom­pa­nies Cap­tain Had­dock on a wine tour to the Nia­gara region of Ontario to keep him out of trou­ble, the two stum­ble onto a wed­ding between a young Cana­di­an woman, a South African lawyer—and some­thing else, a ter­ri­ble spir­it that at first only Snowy can see.

Since 2009, you’ve pub­lished a col­lec­tion and three nov­els, and have anoth­er col­lec­tion and a sequel to Eutopia in the works. What’s the rush? Are you being hunt­ed down or some­thing? Do you need a place to hide?

It has seemed like a wild and pro­lif­ic ride. But it is real­ly a trick with mir­rors. When Mon­strous Affec­tions came out in 2009, I’d near­ly fin­ished Eutopia, my “first” novel—but Rasputin’s Bas­tards was in the can. Because of its length and com­plex­i­ty, it had had a tough time find­ing a pub­lish­er, and I’d been shop­ping a short­er ver­sion of it with even less suc­cess (it real­ly didn’t con­dense well). ChiZine picked up Eutopia, and it did well for them—well enough to pub­lish the long ver­sion of Rasputin’s Bas­tards. And that did well enough for ChiZine to light a fire under me and get me to fin­ish The ‘Geis­ters in time for 2013. This year, the new col­lec­tion is Knife Fight and Oth­er Strug­gles, com­prised large­ly but not entire­ly of new­er sto­ries (Mon­strous Affec­tions bent toward a lot of ear­li­er stuff). And then, I am tak­ing anoth­er year to fin­ish Volk, the sequel to Eutopia.

Your work is remark­able for its vari­ety. I can only think of Dan Sim­mons as a com­par­i­son of an author able to jump gen­res and styles with appar­ent ease. Is this a con­scious deci­sion on your part?

It’s a con­scious deci­sion, in a pas­sive-aggres­sive way, I guess. It is a con­scious non-deci­sion, in that I’ve avoid­ed set­tling in on any one nar­ra­tive inter­est, and the inter­ests that I’ve got are fair­ly broad, at least by hard-core genre stan­dards. I cut my teeth as a young read­er on Stephen King and Lar­ry Niv­en and Ian Flem­ing. As a read­er, I’m open to the sense-of-won­der and rig­or­ous spec­u­la­tion of sci­ence fic­tion just as much as I am to the glam­or and intrigue of espi­onage writ­ing and the ter­ri­ble awe that comes from read­ing a real­ly pow­er­ful hor­ror tale.

And real­ly, as a writer I don’t sep­a­rate myself much from my impuls­es as a read­er. I want to write the kind of fic­tion that I want to read. I’m not sure that this is a strong com­mer­cial impulse, and I know that ear­ly on Sim­mons had some trou­ble jump­ing about dif­fer­ent gen­res too. But I do take his gen­er­al suc­cess in spite of that as encour­age­ment.

It’s a cliché to ask, but where do you get your ideas?

Dif­fer­ent places. I’ve tak­en a lot of aes­thet­ic inspi­ra­tion from my child­hood, spent in part with my dad and broth­er in cen­tral-to-north­ern Ontario. That set­ting is some­thing that I’ve mined a great deal over the years.

Do NOT sit next to this man.

There are sto­ries that come from obser­va­tion, or bits of scenes at least. Just a few weeks ago, I was work­ing on Volk while rid­ing the subway—and com­ing upon a cru­cial scene involv­ing a very pow­er­ful mani­ac. I wasn’t sure where to take it. But as I opened up my lap­top, a fel­low I can only describe as a very pow­er­ful mani­ac sat down beside me and struck up a con­ver­sa­tion, that veered from writer’s block to describ­ing per­son­al­i­ties by blood type and end­ed with a request that I divulge my birth­date, for some mag­i­cal pur­pose. It ter­ri­fied the whole sub­way car, and when I got to Broad­view, a rel­a­tive­ly busy sta­tion where I might cred­i­bly claim to be trans­fer­ring to a street­car, I excused myself and got off to wait for the next train. I spent the rest of the trip tran­scrib­ing what I remem­bered of the con­ver­sa­tion. And now it’s in Volk, in a dif­fer­ent con­text but more or less intact, and it’s pret­ty damn scary if I do say so myself. But I can’t, because I owe it all to the sub­way mani­ac.

Some­times sto­ries are sug­gest­ed to me by read­ing oth­er sto­ries. “Look­er,” in the new col­lec­tion, came to me after read­ing a col­lec­tion of Roald Dahl’s old sto­ries intend­ed for adults. I was struck by his gen­uine­ly per­verse nas­ti­ness, and took it as a chal­lenge to be at least as vicious­ly mysan­throp­ic. And I think that it comes pret­ty close, if I say so myself. But I can’t, because Dahl.

What, in your opin­ion, makes a suc­cess­ful hor­ror sto­ry?

I think a lot of the things that make a suc­cess­ful sto­ry make a hor­ror sto­ry work: stakes, char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions that engage a reader’s empa­thy, rich­ness of set­ting. More specif­i­cal­ly, and sub­jec­tive­ly: the story’s got to sur­prise me in some way—and in so doing, give me a sense of a deep­er real­i­ty.

Why do peo­ple read hor­ror? And don’t give me that “we all like to be scared” shtick.

I actu­al­ly don’t like to be scared so much as I like to glimpse the unnam­able. I am assum­ing that is the same as it is for oth­ers:

Night­mare fuel

The cov­er of Mon­strous Affec­tions gives me night­mares. Why did you inflict this on me? 

To make your nights more inter­est­ing.

Seri­ous­ly, what have you got against night­mares? I’ve had some fan­tas­tic ones lately—deathly school-teach­ers, sen­tient tor­na­does, haunt­ed bus­es tak­ing me to nowhere, final exams from cours­es I was sup­posed to have fin­ished 30 years ago, strange twelve-legged insects that bur­row in my ear and give me tin­ni­tus ren­di­tions of Rhap­sody in Blue…

You’re wel­come, Corey. (Also, you should thank Erik Mohr, the boy genius who came up with that illus­tra­tion.)

I’m going to list a few of your short sto­ries. Can you tell me the impe­tus behind each?

Night of the Tar-Baby”

That’s tough to say. I think prob­a­bly the title came first, and I built on that. I was also inter­est­ed in work­ing with a non-tra­di­tion­al mon­ster (at the time, I’d had my fill of vam­pires and ghosts and demons and such) and I liked the premise behind a tar baby—that it was a kind of pas­sive-aggres­sive mon­ster. Any­one who can con­trol their rage and back off can sur­vive an encounter with a tar baby—but you try to mix it up with one, and you’re in a seri­ous mess.

So in the sto­ry, the tar baby becomes a kind of invoked house­hold god of protection—and also a weapon, for the unde­serv­ing patri­arch.

Janie and the Wind”

Janie and the Wind” was one of my observed-real­i­ty sto­ries, based on an amal­gam of some peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions I’d seen grow­ing up in cen­tral Ontario cot­tage coun­try. City folk who spend sum­mers and ski trips in that part of the world might have a skewed view—that the Muskokas, for instance, are fun­da­men­tal­ly a sum­mer-play­ground for the Rosedale-and-Bay-Street gen­try. There’s cer­tain­ly a lot of mon­ey in and around Musko­ka. But it is also a place of stag­ger­ing pover­ty, both for indi­vid­u­als and for social ser­vices and oth­er niceties of civ­i­lized liv­ing. So it start­ed with these impov­er­ished, uncar­ed-for char­ac­ters… and moved into the ter­ri­to­ry of the Wendi­go, with which I admit tak­ing con­sid­er­able lib­er­ties.

Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drink­ing Man”

Swamp Witch!

I had, when I wrote that sto­ry, been think­ing about a cou­ple of things. Fore­most, I think it was an exer­cise in style—I want­ed to tell a sto­ry that played like a long, noodling roots-music bal­lad, filled with tall tales and back-woods mag­ic. I was think­ing a lot about the old Jim Stafford song Swamp Witch too. And I felt it was high time to write a love sto­ry…

The May­or Will Make a Brief State­ment and Then Take Ques­tions”

When I’m not writ­ing sto­ries, I spend a lot of time doing jour­nal­ism, cov­er­ing Toron­to City Hall. [This sto­ry] was inspired by the David Miller mayoralty—in par­tic­u­lar the scrums, which would always begin with those words com­ing from the mayor’s press sec­re­tary. The sto­ry, which is just a lit­tle bit longer than the answer I’m writ­ing to your ques­tion, was inspired by the so-called Sum­mer of the Gun, when a rash of shoot­ings in at-risk neigh­bour­hoods wound up falling at the mayor’s feet. Miller was round­ly crit­i­cized by his oppo­nents for not doing more. But really—in the imme­di­ate after­math of gun­fire and death and grief, what can any­one do? Miller took it in the jaw then, and final­ly again when he tried to get ahead of the cri­sis with gun leg­is­la­tion and social ser­vice enhance­ments. The May­or… deals with a cri­sis that’s even more dif­fi­cult to get hold of.

I’ve writ­ten one oth­er may­or sto­ry, “Knife Fight,” which appears in the anthol­o­gy Masked Mosa­ic, and is the title sto­ry for my upcom­ing sto­ry col­lec­tion. It’s fair to say that one takes some inspi­ra­tion from Miller’s suc­ces­sor.

Harryhausen’s Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

Polyphe­mus’ Cave”

Always want­ed to write a cyclops sto­ry. Cyclopses  are just cool. And if you’ve spent any time with Ray Harryhausen’s film library, damn destruc­tive, and let’s be hon­est, damn sexy too. When Michael Rowe asked me for a sto­ry for his sec­ond Queer Fear anthol­o­gy, it just seemed a nat­ur­al.

Although I men­tioned this above, what’s next for David Nick­le?

Very soon (which is to say this fall) there’s my sec­ond sto­ry col­lec­tion, Knife Fight and Oth­er Strug­gles. It includes more recent stuff than Mon­strous Affec­tions did (which makes a bit of sense) and also, I think strays fur­ther from clas­sic hor­ror. There will be at least one and pos­si­bly two clear-cut sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries, and some weird mag­ic-real­ist stuff involv­ing the War on Ter­ror, mega-church­es, and cook­ery. It’s also got sto­ries about demon­ic pos­ses­sion and haunt­ed books, though, so hope­ful­ly it won’t be too much of a depar­ture.

I’m also work­ing on a sequel to Eutopia: A Nov­el of Ter­ri­ble Opti­mism, called Volk. It will be out in 2016 and I can’t say too much about it not hav­ing writ­ten too much of it just yet.

Click here for The Sub­con­scious Inter­view with David Nick­le, where­in we learn of chick­ens.