What inspired “The Emperor’s Old Bones”?
Most directly? I was re-watching Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s memoir about his time in a World War II Japanese internment camp after the fall of Shanghai; Christian Bale plays “Jim,” while John Malkovich gives an amazing turn as Basie, an American deserter turned war profiteer who becomes the camp’s designated King Rat. As I did, I began turning things around in my mind, wondering how the story might change if I gender-flipped Malkovich’s character and conjured a formative crush towards her for our barely pubescent protagonist, functionally sociopathic protagonist; fanfic as pearl-grit, the way things often starts to form, at least in my garburator mind. At that point, I suddenly remembered having seen a documentary on some Nature-type show which actually walked viewers through the cooking of the titular dish, in all its cruel, Imperial glory. Since the point of filleting and cooking a carp alive was the transfer of its long life to whoever ate it, I immediately started thinking about whether that sort of (un-)sympathetic magic would work if you substituted, say, a child for the fish. And hey, presto! Something different.
Many examples of cannibalism, both historical and fictional, involve stealing or absorbing some sort of power from the victim. Deep down, do we all truly believe that “you are what you eat”?
I don’t think the metaphor would keep coming up so much if we didn’t, to some degree. The human species is definitely a predatory one, much like any other group of meat-eating animals, but what sets us apart is that we understand our own mortality, as well as the mortality of others. I think that’s what gives rise to the idea of unfairness, which extends rather weirdly but neatly into the concept of torment: physical torture, mental torture, emotional torture. We stave our own pain off by feeding on the pain of others, telling them exactly what we’re going to do and then doing it, or doing it for a while, then lying about stopping.
And what’s worst about this impulse is that while you’re engaged in it, it often seems to work like an utterly perverse bonding exercise—the same capture bonding Will Graham talks about, in Season One of Hannibal. We break each other, tame each other, get creepily close, make ourselves vulnerable, and cultivate a current which comes horribly close to that innate impulse to destroy and consume what we love, the old fairytale refrain: I’ll eat you up, I love you so!
But then again, maybe this is just sophistry. Cannibalism begins in hunger, a simple mechanism of survival, but we all want to dignify it afterwards, because we know it for nothing but sheer, selfish betrayal of our own. Those who can, do, and as long as it gets them what they want, they don’t have to feel bad about it after, unless they make themselves: that’s the slippery, Randian parody of morality Ellis Iseland teaches Tim, in the story. Blood magic requires nothing less.
You have a novel coming out this November. Care to tell us about it?
Experimental Film is a stand-alone contemporary horror novel set in Toronto, Canada whose protagonist—Lois Cairns—is very definitely not “me” per se, even though she’s also a former film critic and film history teacher who lost her job around the same time her son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder; the main difference is that she never cultivated a fiction career on the side, so when her professional life collapses, she has nothing to fall back on. While at the bottom of a depressive spiral, Lois attends a screening of locally-made experimental films and realizes that one of them may contain potential proof that there might have been a hitherto-unknown female filmmaker operating in Ontario around the same time as George Méliès, making silent movies charged with eerie power on flammable, poisonous silver nitrate film. So she starts researching this woman, Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb, and discovers she’s a mysterious figure mainly known for having disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but that just fascinates Lois even more; she keeps going, and . . . bad stuff ensues. Because, as it turns out, Mrs. Whitcomb’s films contain something she was trying to take out of her own head, something whose lasting influence renders these films extraordinarily dangerous to watch.
What are you working on these days?
Right now, I’m going from appearance to appearance and deadline to deadline, mainly short story fills for anthologies and the like, but I’m also planning out what hopefully will become my next novel, or possibly my next couple of novels. Thus far, I’ve noticed that I seem to have two very distinct audiences—people who mainly know me from my novels (the Hexslinger Series, We Will All Go Down Together), versus people who mainly know me from my shorter, more explicitly horrifying work. So the hope is that Experimental Film may change things for me by bringing these two groups together, thus creating a larger pool of fans I don’t want to disappoint or keep waiting any longer than I have to.
What historical or fictional person (or people) would you most like to be dinner for, and why?
Well . . . obvious answer is obvious, right? With Hannibal Lecter, at least you know you’d be beautifully packaged, transformed into something truly sumptuous and artistic. But the fact is, once I’m dead, I’m not going to give a damn who eats me, or how. So as long as nobody does the Emperor’s Old Bones on me, I’ll be just as happy.
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