Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Nancy Etchemendy

On your website you mention growing up in Reno, Nevada and that the desert landscape and abandoned silver mines were part of your childhood experience. Did this serve as inspiration for the setting in “Nimitseahpah”?

Oh yes, very much so. I left Nevada in 1976 and I’ve lived in a number of other places since then, but none have affected my writing more powerfully. I think it’s pretty common for writers to feel an emotional attachment to settings where they spent big chunks of time as children or young adults. But I don’t just have an emotional attachment to Nevada; I’m in love with it. Even after so many years away, I still think of it as home. And I still get a full-body tingle every time I cross the crest of the Sierras, see the Truckee Meadows laid out before me, and catch the scent of Nevada sagebrush.

It’s such a compelling landscape. The deserts of northern and central Nevada are among the emptiest in the world. There are good reasons for that. There’s so little drinkable water that you can literally smell a creek or a patch of willows from miles away. There are mirages and mountains of sand that move around. In some places, the sagebrush is so tall you can get lost in it. Cell phones aren’t much help out there because, except in the towns, there’s no service, and the towns are often hundreds of miles apart. If you have an accident of any sort, it may be a long, long while before anyone even knows there’s a problem. It’s a landscape most city dwellers find either boring or frightening because it’s not human enough. But I find it comforting. When I’m in the desert, I feel connected to everything, and I know I’m part of something much larger than myself—something that will remain long after I’m gone. For me, that’s inspiration in its purest form.

The old mines, though, do frighten me. Children who grow up in mining country learn a few survival rules early on. The most important is to stay away from holes in the ground. Growing up, I recall two or three instances of kids who fell down abandoned mine shafts or were killed in cave-ins. Plus, miners were killed in accidents in nearly every large hard-rock mine ever dug in Nevada, and we learned about that in school. Staring into the black mouth of a mine while the dank earth’s breath drifts out of it is terrifying. At the same time, there’s a certain fascination. At the age of eight or so, I discovered that there was a model mine in the basement of the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. It had mining equipment salvaged from the Comstock Lode, and displays of glowing minerals. I used to beg my parents to take me there on special occasions. Even now, whenever I travel I make a point of visiting any local holes in the ground, whether they’re mines, caves, or bomb shelters. On a trip to Moscow a few years ago, I descended a sixty-five-meter staircase to get the feel of the Cold War-era Tagansky Protected Command Point, which was built to withstand a nuclear blast, and was stocked with enough supplies so 3,000 people could survive there for ninety days—seriously scary. I mean, the whole thing was delusional. Nobody would have survived a direct hit, and even if they had, what’s the point? I’ve done spelunking in some of the best caverns on the planet. As you might guess, I can’t resist tours of mines. I love the alien smell, the mystery, and the hair-raising sense of being far underground, where living things aren’t meant to be. For me, mines and caves are a natural setting for horror stories.

To what extent, if at all, does the story draw from real world mythology or lore?

“Nimitseahpah” draws quite a bit from real world lore.

Nevada’s history is packed with towns that sprang up around large mineral deposits—sometimes gold, but more often silver or copper. Most of these towns only existed because the miners needed goods and services. If the mine played out or the market price of the metal dropped too far, the mine went bankrupt and so did the town. Or sometimes the environmental damage done by the miners transformed once-livable places into moonscapes. If any of those things happened, the residents simply took what they could carry and left for better digs. It’s an eerie experience to visit these ghost towns and try to imagine what life was like in the heyday of the place. There’s often unopened canned food on the shelves, moth-eaten clothing in the closets, ragged furniture, vintage kitchenware, antique tools, frozen in time and preserved by the dry air. I know of one mining site where there are barrels of cyanide from the 1920s, sitting in the open air, rusting out. At the opposite end of the scale were towns that had mines, but also had other reasons to exist. Maybe they were water stops, river crossings, or had rich grazing land. Those are the ones that lasted. Reno is an example, and so are Elko and Ely in eastern Nevada.

The town in my story, Pactolus, is a fictional composite that fits somewhere between those two economic extremes. I’ve set a number of different stories and an unfinished novel in Pactolus; some take place in the present, some at various points in the past, and one takes place a century or so from now, so I’ve had to develop a coherent timeline for the town and a lot of back story. To make its long-term survival believable, I gave Pactolus some special attributes—a big deposit of high-grade silver, for example, enough to support multiple mines. And a prime location in a valley between two mountain ranges so there could be a small river and enough water for ranching. I added a few supernatural attributes as well, such as the dark force that resides in the Pahpocket mine. In “Nimitseahpah,” we get a snapshot of Pactolus in 1905, at a time when silver and gold prices were dropping and towns all over the state were going bust. It’s a picture of a town that might not make it, which helped create the undercurrent of dread I wanted.

Real world mining superstitions also contributed. It’s a dangerous occupation, and miners are understandably a little freaky about it. Many of the miners in Nevada were originally from Cornwall, where hard-rock mining has been a mainstay of the economy for over 4,000 years. The Cornish brought with them many time-honored superstitions, including “knockers” or “tommyknockers,” dwarflike creatures that warn miners of impending cave-ins by knocking on the rock walls. Cornishmen also believed that the ghosts of miners who died in accidents would sometimes haunt a mine long after, and that the earth itself could come to life if something made it angry. In “Nimitseahpah,” we don’t know exactly what happened in the Pahpocket (even I don’t quite know). But these superstitions are among the story’s underpinnings.

Nimitseahpah, the stone guardian of the Pahpocket, is a tufa formation, and there are some Native American traditions (Paiute and Washoe) surrounding those. Tufa is a type of limestone found in wet areas such as the shores of desert lakes. Tufa formations are created by mineral deposition—similar to the process that makes stalagmites and stalactites in caves, but above ground, so there’s evaporation, too. The resulting shapes can be astonishing. Snakes love tufa because it’s full of holes, good for shelter from both heat and cold. As children, my sister and I played and climbed on the formations at Pyramid Lake near Reno, always listening for rattlers. Like the local Native Americans, we frequently named tufa formations and created stories to go with them. It seemed a small step to create a named tufa formation with magical powers for my story. Nimitseahpah, by the way, is a Paiute word that is usually translated as “God.” But the old Paiutes weren’t monotheists. The word is more accurately translated as “the wellspring from which all things come.” Or so I’m told.

What interests you about writing and reading historical fiction?

I find history endlessly fascinating. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist or a paleontologist, and I wondered things like: did the Romans wear underpants? (They did. Sort of.) But in school, I was completely turned off by history classes till seventh grade when I took Nevada history from a tough old teacher, Helen Dunn, who grew up in Goldfield, Nevada during its boom years and had actually lived everything she was teaching us. She had wonderful stories of prospectors, immigrants, saloons, vigilantes, cave-ins, lucky strikes, and heartbreaking romances to go along with the dry facts in the textbook. Her childhood friend, Angie DeNevi, taught art at the same school, and the two of them could talk for hours about old times in Nevada. One of the many things I learned from them is that history is really just a collection of all the best stories about a time and place.

I’m sure my family helped all this along. I recall long evenings, sometimes in kitchens, sometimes outdoors beside open fires, during which the adults took turns telling stories about things that happened to them in times past. Some of these stories were so good that I would beg to have them retold again and again.

I think if we pay attention we can learn a lot from the past. You can start at any point in time and find a path of causal events that leads to the present, often in a more direct way than you might think at first. How did we get into the predicament we’re in right now? Look to history for the answer. Look to history to learn how to get out of whatever predicament we’re in now, too. Watch how the fracking boom in North Dakota goes. I’m sure we’ll soon see ghost towns there, too.

You’ve written horror for both adults and children and have won numerous awards in both categories. How does audience age affect your approach and subject matter?

The paradox of horror as fiction is that, on some level, it has to be fun. As a writer, I’m trying to hit the sweet spot that comes just after the spine starts to tingle, but just before the screams and nightmares—which is where it stops being fun. It’s tricky, because the path to that place differs from person to person. And it’s a lot different for kids than it is for adults.

When I’m writing for young adults, I don’t worry much about altering my approach to suit them. For one thing, nobody knows exactly what “YA” is. I see it as just a broad marketing category with an audience between about the ages of thirteen and twenty-five. YA readers have as good a vocabulary as average adult readers. Any word I use they’ll either be able to understand or look up. There aren’t many publishing taboos in modern YA literature, and at that age, the kids are buying the books themselves, so parents aren’t interceding. I don’t really get off on writing twisted sex or splatter, but if I did, I’d probably stay away from it when writing for young adults. Not so much because it’s inappropriate as because it overshoots that sweet spot I mentioned. Most people who like that kind of thing don’t get into it till they’re older.

When I’m writing for children, I definitely change my approach and avoid some subject matter. There’s all the stuff about limiting the size of words, the length of sentences, and the length of stories, of course. That part’s easy. The real work is deeper. People’s brains don’t finish developing—I’m talking structurally here—till they reach roughly the age of twenty-one. The brains of five-year-olds are completely different from the brains of adults. There is very little true horror written for children younger than about eight. It’s hard for really little children to enjoy fictional fears because they are still grappling with the developmental skills necessary to separate fantasy from reality. Even a story as apparently innocuous as “The Gingerbread Man” can produce ongoing nightmares in a four or five-year-old. Consider the child’s point-of-view. “The Gingerbread Man,” taken at face value, is about a little boy fleeing from animals and people (including his parents) who want to eat him alive—and eventually they succeed. So the first rule of writing horror for children is to understand a little bit about developmental psychology. The second rule is to think like a child. We’re all born with that ability, of course; but some of us lose it as we grow up, and some of us don’t. I’m one of those lucky (or unlucky) people who still remembers exactly what it was like to be ten or eleven.

Children fear the same things as adults: the unknown, death, physical pain (physical sensations are more intense for children than they are for adults), loss (particularly of love), lack of control. In addition, children face nameless, primordial fears that have to do with brain development. If you’ve ever seen a child in the grip of a night terror, you’ll know what I mean. They don’t yet have the ability to tune things out or turn down the volume. Shadows are deeper, slime is slimier, injuries hurt more, smells are overpowering, and the click of an earwig’s mandibles is audible. Children haven’t lived long enough to know much about the world, so it contains far more unknowns than an adult’s world. In practical terms, anyone writing horror for kids has to be very careful not to take them over the top into nightmare land; or out into territory that is full of things they know nothing about yet.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

I know this seems odd. Everyone I mention it to looks a little shocked. But I’m currently writing a book about personal finances for young adults. The working title is The Horror of Money. I’ll leave it at that . . . she says, with an evil grin. I’m sure I’ll be returning to fiction when I’m finished. There’s a moaning horde of stories banging on my door.

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Erika Holt

Erika Holt

Nightmare assistant editor Erika Holt lives in Calgary, Alberta, where she writes and edits speculative fiction. Her stories appear in several anthologies including Not Our Kind, What Fates Impose, and Evolve Two: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead. She is also co-editor of two anthologies from EDGE and Absolute XPress: Rigor Amortis, about sexy, amorous zombies, and Broken Time Blues, featuring such oddities as 1920s burlesque dancers and bootlegging chickens. Find her at erikaholt.com or on Twitter as @erikaholt.