Your work exhibits a remarkable command of sensory impressions: chapped, bleeding hands; the cold; the feel of the dog’s skin; the smell of peat; the description of a toe with gout. These impressions carry throughout the story, keeping the reader close to the main character. What is it about such impressions that encouraged you to explore their impact on this story?
I work in visual effects (for film) as my day job, so I think that visual storytelling is always a big part of my writing. Narrating is kind of a cheat, in both worlds. It’s cheating to tell a reader what to think, and it’s bossy and flimsy and a lot can go wrong. Better to give them something physical to react to and trust that they’ll arrive at whatever you’re getting at by themselves. Visceral impressions are good ways to do that because we all have the same five senses, so the platform of common ground and mutual understanding is already very solid. You just have to be careful because it’s easy to get gratuitous.
“Bog Dog” is all the more terrifying for its lack of horrific detail. The violence and sense of foreboding doesn’t need to scream from the page; it insinuates itself into the reader’s imagination. What first drew you to delving into the world of horror?
My dad was in the Navy, and right before I was born my parents were stationed in Maine, and it was pretty much at the height of Stephen King’s popularity. My mom said that people would wait in lines at bookstores to get his books the night they came out, and they had reading parties and things like that. So we had this huge bookshelf of his books at home. My mom and dad are both teachers, and they were of the opinion that anything that encourages kids to cultivate a love of reading is acceptable reading material. I read Misery when I was in fourth grade—I remember because my teacher kept taking it away from me for sneaking pages under my desk—and it’s still my favorite book. The whole book takes place in one room, with two characters. There are no ghosts or monsters, except for Annie . . . it’s horrifying. I don’t care what anyone says, he’s still the master to me. His book On Writing helped me a lot.
The story is told from the position of age and memory yet hearkens back to the hardships and horrors of a life lived without so-called modern conveniences. What sort of research did you do to prepare for “Bog Dog”?
As a kid I was also a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gary Paulsen, Kate Seredy, and Thor Hyderdal. I’d say most details in my stories about “hard living” come from something or another I picked up from one of their books. Except the thing about the peat, actually. I once had a supervisor named Scott who was a big whiskey guy, and I’d been reading a Wikipedia article on the Tollund Man at my desk and he got all excited. He knew everything there was to know about peat, because that’s what you use to make whiskey. Around the same time I saw a documentary that suggested ergotism from tainted rye had been the cause of werewolf sightings and witch trials in the 1600s, so those two things are where the idea for Bog Dog came from. Ergot poisoning can cause hallucinations, gangrene, seizures, mania . . . it’s just all bad.
Many people feel that children should not be exposed to horror, while others insist children know more of horror than they let on. What scared you as a child?
Pet Sematary scared me as a kid—not the burial ground thing, but the side plot about the infirm sister Zelda who lives upstairs. Still does. Anything about people slowly losing their minds as a result of pain or illness. That said, I think there’s a big difference between allowing kids to read horror, and to watch horror. I was once ranting to a co-worker about “torture porn” films, and how they’re making it widely acceptable to delight in another person’s suffering, and she correctly pointed out that most great authors have made their careers writing about suffering in some way. I think reading horror is different because the nature of reading forces you to relate more to the characters and become more sympathetic to what is happening to them, to put yourself in their shoes. There are exceptions of course, but I find horror films are most often focused on the horrific event, or horrific villain, than the character experiencing the horror. That’s too disturbing, and it’s not why we go to the movies, so films like that are few and far between and don’t often entice young viewers. If it doesn’t sound too hokey, I think exposing kids to horror through reading is more about introducing the idea of suffering and fear as part of the human condition, which is going to happen anyway. So if your kid is old enough and smart enough to read adult horror novels, they’re probably old enough to begin grasping that truth.
Whom do you read when you’re in the mood for something dark or gruesome?
Lately, Lisa See. Sounds weird, but if you’ve never read up on the practice of footbinding, give it a quick Google. Horrifying. And these girls were like ten, and it happened to all of them! Could you imagine being nine years old and knowing that someday soon your mom and grandmother were going to come into your room and break all your toes and then fold your foot over like a crepe?
What can readers expect from Seras Nikita? What shadows lurk just out of sight of the page?
I’m currently working on a short story that takes place in the Bermuda triangle. The main character is a housewife with an eating disorder. She’s pretty unlikeable, in a satisfying way that makes me feel kind of slimy. It’s coming out great.
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