Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Nathaniel Lee

This story has its roots in a very difficult situation and a most tenuous point in the lives of many people. Where did you find inspiration for “Where It Lives”?

Not as interesting an answer as some, I’m afraid. Years and years ago, I read one of Roger Zelazny’s essays on writing in which he categorized his stories as generally coming from a strong character, a striking image, or a necessary plot, and that sometimes one-third would hang around waiting for at least one of the other two to show up. I’ve found that to be fairly accurate for me as well. “Where It Lives” started with the image from the final scene, of the house crammed full of swollen, cancerous flesh, paired with the phrase “It grows to fill where it lives.” The phrase stemmed from the folk biology myth about goldfish. The image of a house crammed full of awful, probably mutated from an old Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game adventure called “A Crack’d and Crook’d Manse” in which a pseudo-shoggoth took up residence inside the walls of a house. (It turned out to die when exposed to salt; the adventure ended with all three of our characters roaring drunk, rolling nude on the front lawn in a giant pile of rock salt as the mansion burned merrily behind us.)

At any rate, once I had my striking image, I just needed a plot to match to it. A little noodling on the metaphor keyboard suggested grief as a suitably parasitic and life-devouring concept to hook into the mechanism, and from there things flowed accordingly.

The story is also filled with a range of sensory impressions: Eric’s dad spinning lazily around the kitchen, the snug feel of enclosed spaces, dust in the hair, the copper smell and taste of blood. Such impressions are necessary for setting the tone of a story, yet here you also use them as a vehicle for describing the characters’ transformations. As a writer, do you find that your own sensory experiences can impact, or even create, story ideas?

I actually have to work very hard on sensory imagery. I am a fairly oblivious person. I don’t hear well, I’m nearsighted to the point of blindness, and my sense of smell has long been ravaged by an unending series of sinus infections due to allergies. As a result, sense images don’t come naturally to me. When I was a young writer, I was advised several times to work on bringing more smell and taste description to my writing, so I go out of my way to do so. In this case, because it is, as I mentioned above, what I think of as a striking-image story, I went heavier on the sense motif than usual.

Also, I was aiming to capture some of the sense of unreality, or heightened reality, that can accompany mental disruption; I find that when I am not quite in my right mind, certain sensory details can just become overwhelming. That part is very much drawn from my own life: Eric’s reaction to the world as being too much, too loud and bright, is verbatim from my internal monologue when I’m feeling stressed. And I’m quite fond of small rooms and small houses in general. (What was Harry Potter so upset about anyway? Best room in the house, under the stairs!)

What is it about the weird, dark things that lurk in the shadowed corners of our minds that appeals to you as a writer?

It’s hard to pin down. To me, all stories are internal stories. The events that occur aren’t as interesting to me as the complex interactions of the warring selves. I spend a lot of time in my own head. (As is traditional on the Internet, I identify as strongly introverted, but in my defense I did so even back when you had to find an actual physical book to give yourself a Myers-Briggs test.) It’s a weird place, and if I spend all this time poking at this stuff and trying to figure it out, I might as well try to make some use out of it afterward.

I could also say that “weird, dark thing lurking in a shadowed corner” would be a pretty fair description of me in general. Well, except I’m more fuzzy and pallid than “dark” per se.

Conversely, what is it about the bizarre and horrific that appeals to readers?

Stories are ways to create sense of the universe. Things that aren’t weird, upsetting, or broken don’t need an external framework to incorporate into the sensible daylight world, ne? Horror fiction is the psychological equivalent of going to WebMD and seeing what diseases your list of symptoms qualifies you for.

You are very active in the realm of podcasts, both behind the scenes and as a contributor. How did you come to be interested in podcast productions of short fiction? Do you have a particular favorite short story that has been produced as a podcast?

Night shift. No, really. I’ve always loved short fiction above all other forms, and in particular I relish short horror fiction. Back in ’08, I got a job working overnight on a compliance hotline. There wasn’t a lot to do once I’d wrapped up the daily paperwork. Maybe a half dozen calls over the course of ten hours. I’d heard in a vague way about audio fiction and went searching for horror short stories so I could put them on in the background while idly surfing or playing flash games and waiting for a call to come in. My search turned up Pseudopod, split off from Escape Pod about two years prior. “The Inevitability of Earth,” I think. “Ah, yes,” I said to myself, “this will do.”

Thus, it may be nostalgia talking, but Mur’s reading of “Devote Your Life to Beauty” is still utterly chilling to me. That and her rendition of “Regis St. George” were both story and reading combinations that confirmed my new dedication to the fiction podcast. I’m always more focused on text than how it sounds (for the reasons mentioned above), so while I could spend hours listing stories I love (okay, just for a moment, over at Escape Pod last year we managed to get Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and oh how I love that story. Ooh, and “A Litany of Earth” that Norm managed to snag for Drabblecast) I should point out that I feel one of the strengths of the podcast format is the ability to generate new angles and layers through the reading itself, either by perfect matches (Laurice White reading N.K. Jemisin’s “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints in the City Under the Still Waters”) or by slightly clashing choices (my friend David Steffen likes to cite his flash piece “What Makes You Tick,” which came out at two podcasts, Pseudopod and Toasted Cake, with noticeably different intonations, resulting in one very creepy and one almost comedic version.)

Who do you like to read when you’re in the mood to get your horror on?

I like the variety show, honestly. Anthologies of short horror fiction: if you don’t like this story, wait a few pages. I don’t follow specific authors so much as particular stories. Of those I’ve deliberately purchased single-author collections from, I can think of Joe Hill (kind of a gimme), Kelly Link (that woman is a genius), M.R. James, maybe a little Stephen King if he’s having a good day. But really, I like surprises and diversity. I go through the Amazon store every now and then and download everything free in the “horror, short fiction” category just in case something amazing is in there, y’know.

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Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell is a forty-seven-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. She is hard at work plotting her second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.