“The Adventurer’s Wife” opens with a touch of years gone by; hearkening to the pulp stories of old, and then slowly slides into the darker world of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Tell us a little of what inspired the tale.
It began with a friend sending me a link for the anthology that this story ended up in. At the time, I had actually been noodling around a Lovecraftian riff of H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” for a little while, so it was a delight to finish it as an official raspberry blown at H.P. Lovecraft! I also intended to riff or spoof Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and in somewhat the same way. The stories set in “darkest Africa” at that time are a grab-bag of identical tropes somewhat shuffled by the writers who all fan-boi’d each other and were loath to deviate from the template. I hoped to take some of those tropes and flip them while keeping that pulpy feel. In particular, I wanted to divert focus from strictly the “adventurer” himself, and onto what happens when the adventurer comes home.
The narrative is filled with wonderful sensory impressions: the world map with little flagged brass pins, the widow’s headscarf, the descriptions of the ruins, and the final, delicious encounter. When writing, how aware are you of the impact of such sensory impressions on the reader? Do you set out to build a specific sensory repertoire, or do you let the sights, smells, and sounds blossom as the words come?
Thank you! I did have a mental image of both the ruins and the house, particularly the staircase—in fact, it was so clear that for a while there I wondered if I was remembering an old photograph or something in a movie. I set out to build a specific repertoire based on that mental image, but I also wanted to cue both Greene and the reader to certain things. He enters the house and gets a precisely calibrated image: a rich, exotic, beautiful house in mourning. Then, he meets Sima Penhallick: a rich, exotic, beautiful woman in mourning. These are specific indicators to him of something not just prestigious and unthreatening, but profitable—indicators that he’s going to sell a really good story. Sima is completely aware of this, she knows the impression that she and the house make on Greene. I love seeing cues in stories that some characters get and some don’t—it feels like a secret, a wink to the reader.
“The Adventurer’s Wife” was originally published in She Walks in Shadows in 2015, a stellar collection of mythos based stories. You managed to blend mythos horror with the magic and stories of a fictional central African culture; almost Robert E. Howard meets H.P. Lovecraft. Why did you feel it was important to write such a story rather than retreat to the default settings of western culture?
Truthfully, at first I thought it would just be fun to do some trope-poking and perspective-shifting. I kept picturing how thrillingly offended Howard and Haggard and Lovecraft would be to have their heroes portrayed accurately—as semi-competent braggarts with big guns and a tendency to get in way over their heads due to ignoring the locals wherever they ventured. But as I wrote, it occurred to me that that was the biggest thing to call out: that these pulp adventurers were entering worlds so different from their own that they might as well have been in a portal fantasy, and yet they refused to listen to the locals, obey their warnings, or treat them as anything more than walking luggage and body armour. In particular, I was thinking of the oft-repeated trope of the local guide who leaps in front of the heroic main character to save him from a lion or charging elephant or something, which is not just stupid, but sloppy, bad writing. Who’s going to sacrifice himself for a boss he’s known for two weeks? Worse yet, those writers would have been patting themselves violently on the back for their perceived progressivism—portraying the loyal guide as “noble” or “a martyr,” so they could say, “See? At least I gave him some positive qualities before he died! I didn’t call him a barbarian or savage!” I mean, the only people who wouldn’t look askance at that kind of twisted literary “charity” are other pulp writers.
So I wanted to make Sima and her people the main characters—not Greene, who thinks he is, and not Penhallick either. Sima knows she would be a trope in another story. That’s what gives her the power to flip it. She’s engineered the house, the clothes, the tea, the story, the entire encounter so that Greene sees her as this vulnerable young widow, a little unhinged by grief, a little too gulled by her culture’s silly fairytales: easy to take advantage of, alone there in that big house. With the default trappings of western pulp culture, this would have had a very different ending. The pulp framework is prone to the endings you get from pitting overly heroic heroes against one-note adversaries. I wanted a twistier story, a Faust tale in which they both come off as villains, a story in which you still feel awkward trying to pin down who’s guilty and who’s innocent, even as the shoggoth comes down the stairs. The story also counts on people knowing a bit about the Dunwich Horror players, but there’s no reason that the horror couldn’t have happened in a thousand other places around the world—no reason that these things keep picking on New England. I think that’s reflected well in this (cough cough—award-winning) anthology—Silvia and Paula did a tremendous job curating the selection of stories to get a variety of perspectives and settings.
In keeping with the previous question, how do you think the failings of early genre writers to make representation a core tenant of their works has impacted the make-up of the modern genre audience? What can we, both as readers and writers, do to promote meaningful efforts at creating a more diverse, inclusive genre?
What an interesting question! I’m guessing it’s sort of self-perpetuating, to be honest, by the writers who came just after the earliest genre writers. They would have thought, “Oh, Celebrated Writer X wrote a popular, profitable series where all the characters were a certain way; if I want to be a celebrated writer, I must imitate him.” And then that writer creates something not materially different from Celebrated Writer X, having confused correlation with causation. When they imitate X, they believe they’re borrowing the beloved voice or turn of phrase, but instead they wake up one morning and realize that they’ve accidentally rewritten either “Dune” or “The Hobbit”—a lot of straight, white people with no major mental or physical disabilities and a confusingly large amount of income and resources, fighting either a lightly or blatantly exoticised foe. And if they don’t scrap it out of embarrassment, it gets published and the cycle starts anew—a chain as well as a net of writers who admire their predecessors and peers who are all writing exactly the same thing.
So I guess as a writer, our job is to see that happening and try to prune it out of our own work, to incorporate innovative and diverse characters, settings, philosophies, religions, technologies, monsters, gods, whatever. Not just because everyone’s sick of tropes, but because innovation needs to propagate new innovation—a new chain, a new net, of writers and books to idolise and imitate. And as readers, I think the popular advice applies: If a reader finds a diverse book they love, shout about it, buy it new, pre-order it, tell everyone. Make the publishers repeatedly and consistently aware that there’s fantastic stuff outside of the status quo, stuff that reflects not just the world we live in, but the alternate worlds that we keep trying to create.
As with any talented writer, you are an avid reader. Who are some of your favorite writers? To whom do you turn when you want to get your genre on?
Favourite writers include William Faulkner, Ursula K. LeGuin, Barbra Hambly, Mary Doria Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Martin Amis, Nick Harkaway, and Gene Wolfe. When I’m feeling fearful about form or convention, I turn to James Tiptree, Jr, or James Joyce. When I’m sick of too-taut prose, I turn to China Mieville or Mervyn Peake. When I want to write sci-fi and I feel like I can’t, I turn to Vladimir Nabokov or Margaret Atwood; when I want to write fantasy and I feel like I can’t, I turn to Neil Gaiman or Robert Graves. Lord Dunsany and Algernon Blackwood are also terrific inspiration to develop self-confidence in terrible ideas. I do a lot of re-reading, so it takes me a while to read the “it” books of the year and develop a taste for current favourites; I have about 400 books on my Want to Read list, and it increases every day because I don’t know how to stop.
You recently announced you are represented by Michael Curry of DMLA, definitely an accomplishment. What can eager fans expect from you in the coming year? What projects do you have in the works?
Thank you! Actually, when I queried Michael, his reply mentioned She Walks in Shadows and that he had liked “The Adventurer’s Wife,” so it’s no exaggeration to say that this story gave me a boost when it came to getting that offer! Anyway, we’ll be working on polishing up my existing novel—a Lovecrafty race against time with lots of yelling, panicking, magic, and sand—for submission, as well as starting the sequel, which I’m really looking forward to writing. In terms of short fiction, I’m sitting on specifics till the table of contents are released, but I’ve been accepted into two 2017 anthologies that I’m very excited about! Let’s just say that if you like ancient gods and unpleasant surprises, these will be right up your alley.
It’s a strange and painful time to be writing in this specific sub-genre, I have to say. The whole point of cosmic horror is that the evil is so huge, so old, and so powerful, that we are almost beneath its notice—but that if we are noticed, we are so insignificant and weak that there’s no way to hide or resist. And yet, in every story, the cosmic must become personal. The hero must gather a band of like-minded people, divide the evil into manageable monsters, and not give up the fight until it’s defeated. I’m keeping that in mind for everything I work on this year.
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