What sparked the idea for “Bonfires”?
I was listening to the local live hip hop show one Sunday night on the car radio, and a guy came on talking about how he had been inspired to write a tune about going to the beach and hanging out by a bonfire and kicking around a ball . . . I thought, “That’s not very punk!” They were talking about this song as if it was edgy and “street” or whatever, and I became increasingly annoyed, because I couldn’t think of anything less relevant as a topic for music I associate with social commentary and attitude. This led to me becoming outright angry, and then thinking, “Well, is there something dark I could do with this?” I immediately saw the kind of figures that I would be far more interested to see around a bonfire, and the sort of story that might unfold there. All of this happened while I was driving. As soon as I parked, I went right in and grabbed my pen and notebook and wrote this. It had its origins in nothing more than getting pissed off about a lame hip hop song.
What draws you to writing horror and dark fiction?
Often it’s simply the desire to contribute something worthwhile to my favorite field of fiction. Dark fantasy and horror have given me so much over the years. It’s such a rich field, with so many wonderful writers working in it, such an extensive tradition, and even when the stories age there’s still something in them that I love, something ageless. It’s a challenge I try to rise to again and again, while feeling that the chance of my contributing anything nontrivial is incredibly remote. Still, you’ve got to have something unattainable to shoot for . . . Anything less is hardly worth the effort.
In addition to your many novels and short stories, you write and design video games for Valve, including the popular Half-Life series. Can you tell us a little about what that work is like, and what kind of impact it has had on your prose writing (if any)?
I don’t think it’s affected my prose, but it has made me more aware of wanting to engage an audience, of wanting to entertain. I still approach prose from a very different place than when I’m working on a game. It’s a solitary endeavor and I know whatever story I write will be read by a tiny fraction of the number of people who enjoy the games I work on . . . My books sold a couple thousand copies apiece, if that. Our games sell in the millions. So the cheesy pun-laden one-liners I wrote for Dota will be heard all over the world for years to come, while my best writing is out of print and impossible to find. But in a way that’s freeing. And I enjoy taking what I know from writing stories and trying to inject it into games in unexpected ways.
Your books The Orchid Eater and The 37th Mandala are “Easter eggs” in Half-Life, and a fictional novel called The Extreme Aggrotato is attributed to you in Half-Life 2. Now that your real books have appeared in a video game, do you have any plans to write the fake one?
The Rotato is a design I intended to patent: It is a potato that rotates freely along every axis. Amazing, no? If I could make millions off that idea, then I’m pretty sure I could get a series of franchise novels out of it. I would probably hire someone else to write them, though.
Do you have any video games you would recommend for people who like reading horror?
Clive Barker’s Undying is an old one, probably hard to find and play these days, but it was an inventive and genuinely frightening game. [Editor’s Note: Marc later discovered that Undying was just re-released, and is available from the current publisher, Good Old Games.] Amnesia is a more recent one that is great . . . I know quite a few people who found it simply too terrifying to play. Just about the scariest game I’ve ever played is the original Fatal Frame, a PS2 ghost-photography game that had a few sequels, although I didn’t get sucked into those. Even games that are not marketed as horror may have some sequences that are powerfully atmospheric—such as many sections of the Thief series, notably the Haunted Cathedral and Shalebridge Cradle sequences. There is something about a game that lets you take a relatively hackneyed horror premise and make it something fresh and frightening.
What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you soon?
For the past few years I’ve been working on the multiplayer online game Dota 2 along with fellow Nightmare contributor Ted Kosmatka and another writer, Kris Katz. This involves writing scripts, casting actors and recording their voice sessions, and writing lore for this chaotic fantasy world that exists mainly to justify 5v5 online battles. It’s a mess but it’s fun, and it will soon be available for the whole world to play for free . . . That’s on top of the millions who are playing it already. Millions! Maybe a few of them will read this issue of Nightmare!
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