How did this story come about?
I’d just been offered one-third of the first Night Visions anthology and I didn’t feel anything I already had on hand was strong enough, so I had several stories to write from scratch. So I did what I often do to generate material: I took a drive around the neighborhood with complete faith that something I was going to see would inspire at least one story (the faith part is essential, and since this seems to work for me at least 80% of the time, that faith appears to be justified). I remember the first thing I saw when driving by the park was a cat wandering through the tennis courts, and it occurred to me how cage-like these enclosed courts appeared, and how much like open-topped containers. That got me thinking about how someone might fill one of these cage-like containers with cats, and the noise they would make, and the kind of high energy nervous electricity/anxiety they would produce. This image very quickly became the emotional heart of the developing story. The cats were like the subliminal chorus I was hearing as I wrote the tale. I began to think in terms like, “Well, obviously behind every peaceful setting there is a tennis court full of cats hiding somewhere.”
I also noticed the number of family picnics going on in the park — that was always happening, and some of them quite large. Which made me think about being in a relationship, and meeting the extended family of your significant other for the first time and how threatening that can be. That’s because families, especially large families, tend to develop their own secret culture, with rules and expectations all their own, and trying to understand that can be initially quite difficult.
Then I drove by the Mullen Home for the Aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. It’s an institution in my old Denver neighborhood, a giant, sprawling building with several outlying cottages built in 1916 as a residence and care facility for the aged. Tying in to what I’d already been thinking about, I wondered about what if that building were instead a giant family compound. I imagined the tennis courts there, full of cats, and there was my setting. The nursing aspect of the Mullen Home led me to think of the wife as ill, which was a good emotional complication. A serious illness changes a relationship — it brings out both the best and worst in you. It’s something completely out of your control, and yet you tend to treat it sometimes as just another practical problem like budget or an out-of-commission car the family can somehow solve. And there’s some resentment, too, I think. You didn’t sign up for this, but now you’re married not only to this person but to their illness as well.
Is the similarity of the pale vampires of Rivendale to the pale elves of Rivendell purposeful?
Yes it is, and you’re one of the few to ever point this out. There’s always been this dark side to fairyland, this sense that although these creatures can be quite fascinating and beautiful they still see us, in some ways, as prey. When I was looking for a name I wanted something peaceful and bucolic yet slightly suspect. So I transformed Rivendell into Rivendale for the story. And “riven,” of course, means “torn apart.”
There are very few vampire tropes in this story — can you talk about why you wrote them the way you did?
I’m not a fan of horror tropes in general. Occasionally it’s fun to play off them, especially if you’ve figured out some new angle, but over time I think they become obstacles between you and authentic emotion. If you’ve created an original character and you’re trying to illuminate their inner emotional life and yet with each new story you still come up with the same set of images to describe that emotional life then I think there’s a problem.
I actually didn’t realize this was a vampire story until I finished it. I was writing about a marriage, about a relationship, and translating emotional states into what I hoped would be appropriate scenes and imagery. Then as I was refining the drafts the vampiric aspects just seemed to float to the top. I tweaked them a bit to bring out that connection, but for the most part I left them as is.
Why does the room fixate in Frank’s memory so strongly?
I think a focus on detail just naturally works for a horror writer in several different ways. During periods of high emotion or trauma (in this case the end of a marriage, possibly the end of a life) we tend to either lose the details of our environment to an overall fuzziness, or we feel them much more acutely. It’s like the conspiracy theorist who obsesses over every little detail of a tragedy looking for causality, for explanations, for someone to blame, for some sense that if only A, B, or C had happened differently then maybe the whole tragedy could have been avoided. Most of us may not believe we have that much control, but details observed during a crisis may still take on life-long significance, becoming almost spiritual in their meaning.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
An original novella from PS Publishing, In the Lovecraft Museum, just came out, with my take on several Lovecraftian themes. I also just turned in a novelette, “Torn,” to Dark Regions for their I Am the Abyss project. Various writers were asked to write a fictional vision of the afterlife, and who could pass that up?
But perhaps what I’m most excited about is my next novel for Solaris, Ubo, out in the spring of next year. Ubo is a dark SF meditation on violence and its origins. It’s the result of a great deal of research over a number of years and involves such historical figures as Charles Whitman, Jack the Ripper, Himmler, Stalin, and Gilles de Rais.
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