“Distress Call” first appeared in 1981 in The Berkley Showcase Vol 4: New Writings in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Victoria Schochet and John Silbersack. In fact, this story provided the cover illustration for that anthology. Did you write “Distress Call” specifically for the collection? How did it develop from idea to publication?
I wrote the story so long ago I can’t quite remember how it ended up in The Berkley Showcase, nor what inspired the story, but I know one of the things that has always annoyed me about ghost stories is how the ghosts are always able to to do stuff, like make spooky noises and turn doorknobs and deliver messages from the other side. For me one of the great terrors of dying has been the possibility that you’d be dead but still aware of what’s happening to your loved ones and would have the nightmare of having to watch silently, unable to speak or reach out to help them.
I don’t want to spoil readers of this story or your 2001 novel, Passage, but readers discovering “Distress Call” today for the first time probably will note some similarities between the two. How much did this early story influence the novel?
I’ve been in love with the sinking of the Titanic since I read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember when I was fifteen. It has everything—horror, pathos, redemption, courage, appalling decisions, irony. Or as the Onion said in one of its great historical deadlines: WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR SINKS. It also has calls for help that aren’t heard, rescue that comes too late, drowning children, self-sacrifice—all the elements of a ghost story.
I guess you could call “Distress Call” sort of a first attempt at capturing something of the feeling that the Titanic gave me. When I wrote it, I had no intention of returning to the theme and certainly not of writing a whole novel on the subject, but the Titanic and its meaning continued to nag at me through the years, and eventually resulted in Passage.
“Distress Call” is a far cry from your beloved Christmas stories and screwball comedies, though it does contain some time travel of a sort. What struck me most is that this story presents the end of Caroline and Jim’s relationship, and you so often write about the beginnings of romance. Although plenty of horror can be found in many of your stories—psychological horror, the horrors of war—you aren’t known for writing traditional horror stories. Do you read or watch much horror? What draws you to or repels you from the genre?
I have actually written traditional ghost stories. Early on, I wrote a short story called “Service for the Burial of the Dead,” and I consider both Lincoln’s Dreams and Passage to be ghost stories, though there are science fiction elements there, too. As to horror, I’m not really a great fan of it—and as I get older and see more and more actual horrors in the world, I’m even less of one. And I hate slasher stuff and gore. I even had trouble with the bloody scenes in Looper, which I thought was otherwise a great science fiction movie—and I know the gore was totally necessary to the plot, but it gave me nightmares. But I love psychological horror. My favorites? The movie The Others, Kit Reed’s “The Wait,” Daphne DuMaurier’s House on the Strand and “Don’t Look Now,” and pretty much everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, especially The Haunting of Hill House (the book and the movie The Haunting, not the recent remake) and a little number called “The Summer People,” about an elderly couple who decide to stay on in their cabin by the lake after Labor Day.
Relatedly, the 1991 limited edition Roadkill Press chapterbook of “Distress Call” also included your essay “On Ghost Stories.” I wasn’t able to track down a copy before this interview, but I’m intensely curious. Would you briefly share with us some of your thoughts about ghost stories?
As I say, I love psychological horror, which also means loving ghost stories. They’re terrifying, but they don’t produce that terror by using shocks and blood and violence; they get it from the subtlest and simplest of everyday things—a flicker of movement, a half-heard sound, or something not quite right about the situation. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, nothing much happens—the lights go out, there are some funny sounds, somebody gets lost in a garden, the person you thought was holding your hand is actually on the far side of the room—but I dare you to read it late at night.
With ghost stories (as with all stories really), the best stuff is all in your head. To me the heart of a ghost story is always what would cause someone to come back from the dead. What reason would you have to have to come back? And the fact that you were murdered or had committed suicide or wanted to correct an injustice isn’t really enough. I mean, this is death we’re talking about. The reason would have to be much stronger—and stranger—than that. And in all my favorite stories, it is.
So, you’re a big fan of the British series Primeval, which I’m ashamed to admit I have not yet seen. What has replaced that show on your DVR and in your heart? Did you like Primeval: New World?
Yes, I adored Primeval, the BBC series, all five seasons of it. It was just an ordinary action-story premise about chasing dinosaurs in modern-day London, but it shows what can be done when you apply great writing, great acting, and really clever plotting to an ordinary premise. I’ve used it to teach plotting in the last three workshops I’ve taught. It was funny, heartbreaking, romantic, and I couldn’t figure out what was going to happen—and I always know what’s going to happen. Just how good it was was proved to me when I watched the Canadian spinoff, Primeval: New World, which had exactly the same premise and a big budget, but which was absolutely wretched. By episode two I was rooting for the dinosaurs to win. What’s replaced it in my heart? Nothing. I still watch Primeval and discover new stuff all the time. But I adore Sherlock, especially ”The Reichenbach Fall” episode, which I thought was brilliant—Martin Freeman is the best actor alive today—and this fall my husband and I have been watching Broadchurch, with David Tennant on BBC America. It’s a mystery series, but oddly, it has rather the feel of a ghost story and is one of the few shows I’ve ever seen that treats death with the seriousness (and horror) it deserves. We loved it.
I’ve heard your next novel is about telepathy! Feel free to take my money now. I know better than to ask how it’s coming or when it will be published, but can you tell us a little more about the book? What other work do you have out now or have forthcoming?
Yes, my new novel, which has a working title of The Very Thought of You, is about telepathy. But don’t think Dying Inside or The Demolished Man. My novel’s a romantic comedy and is based on the premise that telepathy is a terrible idea. It’s bad enough that we keep upping the level of communication with Twitter and smart phones and Skype and Instagram (and yet somehow never manage to communicate with each other). I firmly believe that telepathy would only make things worse, not better, and I intend to show you just how with the new book. As to other stuff, my new collection, The Best of Connie Willis, is just out, and I’m currently working on a story about the Isle of Capri and one about a mysterious bookshop.
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