“Paradise Retouched” filled my imagination with hints of older horror anthology television shows or movies such as The Twilight Zone or Creepshow. What can you tell us of the inspiration behind the story?
“Paradise Retouched” was inspired by the desire to write some version of a classic haunted house story without hitting the usual notes. In the past few years, we had stayed in several vacation rentals, and I liked that idea as the starting point, but it took a while to decide on the setting of Hawaii, even though I had been living on Kauai for several years, where vacation homes were (pre-COVID) a big part of the economy. The haunted photo (or painting or mezzotint) story is as much a genre standard as the haunted house, and it went naturally with the vacation rental. The real challenge was to figure out how to do something with these concepts that didn’t immediately seem overfamiliar, so the haunted house got updated to the Airbnb era, and the haunted photo got updated with Photoshop. I also played with the idea of telling the whole story in epistolary form, as a statement from a property manager, to add the kind of fake objectivity that generally helps ground supernatural horror, but I ended up wanting to mix in a couple different perspectives.
The story is a blend of casual and cosmic horror, where the unwitting main character creates and suffers the consequences of his own actions. I appreciated how you approached the understated nature of the horror and how the story ends mere moments before an even greater horror begins. Here, the letter provides the first look into the fruits of Jeff’s prank, both pulling us away from his narrative and opening the door to the darkness beyond. For you, does form follow function? Is the horror in this story Jeff’s reaction to family photos, his tampering, or the way the results are innocently expressed by the realty agent?
It became a story about gossip, miscommunication, cultural appropriation, projection, all through a weird fiction filter. I wrote several stories set on Kauai, and I tried to make sure that none of them was about Hawaiian culture, but more about the aspects I was comfortable exploring—namely tourism, misunderstanding, things you can encounter anywhere. I suppose the horror here emerges once things have run out of control, when no one but the reader has all the pieces available to see the big picture. There’s no familiar supernatural agency at work, no Hawaiian deities or Kahuna magic, just an idle prank, a bit of creative tomfoolery. Lots of things start this way.
This is not your first foray into writing horror. Your novella “White Spawn” is an excellent example of transforming the mundane into something much darker. What is it about horror that speaks to you as a writer?
I don’t write much horror, and it’s a form I approach with a certain level of intimidation, because so many of my early formative reading experiences were horror and it has always been very important to me. I feel intimidated because the best works of horror are some of the masterpieces of world literature, and they cast a deep dark shadow that makes me feel very pale and unaccomplished when I think about daring to hope to produce anything original of worth in this mode. I don’t have actual nightmares very often either, so I guess the proportion of horror stories I write might roughly parallel the ratio of nightmares to less terrifying dreams.
What does Marc Laidlaw read when he wants to get his horror on?
For years and years, since I was a teen, I’ve relied on Ramsey Campbell to deliver the goods. He remains a writer of great power and originality, and his technique has just gotten more honed over the years. I don’t read a lot of horror per se, but I find that there is often an aspect of it in books I enjoy. And of course, for short fiction there’s nothing better . . . and there is so much of it, I wouldn’t know where to begin with recommendations. Right here in Nightmare is a great place to start, of course. I have trouble finishing novels that attempt to create a feeling of unrelieved horror from one end to the other, but it can be very satisfying if there is a thread of that running through something else for contrast. One of my favorite things in horror is an effect of eerie wonder or inexplicable awe, and that is something that I find in fantasy and even mundane fiction. If it’s not there, I definitely miss it. I’ve just read the first two books of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, and they are full of horror and dread. It’s not hard to see that plenty of writers who would never call themselves horror writers still rely on the effect, and will stage whole books around a moment or a scene that is built up purely as horror. It might be a murder or a moment of betrayal where a character realizes they’re over an abyss. These kinds of insights don’t belong exclusively to Lovecraft, you can find them everywhere. That’s the cool thing about the cosmic abyss, I guess! It’s underneath everything. (See also my answer to the next question . . .)
“Underneath the Oversea” was released in October of 2020. Do you have any new projects readers can look forward to in 2021?
This was one of the last stories I wrote before the pandemic, and I haven’t written anything substantial since. I started composing electronic music over the endless pandemic summer of 2020, and channeled my weird creative urges into that. I consider some of the things I’ve done to be short stories in the form of music. This one, “Deep Magnetic Throne,” in particular: (bit.ly/3dv4RGH).
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