Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: C.A. Suleiman

Readers of horror fiction are frequently unfamiliar with the world of horror role-playing games, and yet that world is consistently producing high-quality fiction and beautifully designed books. Among the most popular writers in the horror RPG field is C.A. Suleiman, who has spent nearly two decades working on such immensely successful games as Scarred Lands, Vampire: The Requiem (for which he and Ari Marmell created the acclaimed “city book” City of the Damned: New Orleans), and, most recently, Mummy: The Curse. The fiction anthology Curse of the Blue Nile, which he edited as part of a Kickstarter campaign for Mummy: The Curse, gathers five novellas set in the secret history of “The Arisen”, and his shared world concept “The Lost Citadel” will soon yield Tales of the Lost Citadel, with original fiction from established and rising horror writers including Elizabeth Massie, Damien Angelica Walters, Bracken MacLeod, and Mercedes M. Yardley. Suleiman is also an accomplished musician whose band Toll Carom is currently at work on a new album.

Let’s start with some basics about horror roleplaying games: What do you see as the unique appeal of this particular form of horror entertainment? Do these games occupy a position between the fast-paced thrills of video games and the more intellectual pleasures of fiction?

That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but roleplaying is perhaps even more versatile than either video games or straight prose, at least in terms of the ways in which engagement can be expressed, and that might be its strongest appeal. Since a lot of the conceits and constructs are imaginary in RPGs, you aren’t limited by the graphics budget, as you’d be in a video game; and although that’s true of fiction as well, fiction doesn’t generally contain the two things that video games contain (graphics and agency), and RPGs almost always contain both.

So, in that regard, I’d say that RPGs don’t so much occupy a position between video games and fiction, as combine the two in a “best of both worlds” type of scenario. When written and executed well, there may be nothing more satisfying and immersive than an RPG.

Is part of the appeal of these games that they allow players to become storytellers themselves?

Yes, that’s exactly right, and certain kinds of RPGs are focused even more heavily on pure storytelling than others, requiring no dice or randomized results of any kind, which renders those “games” into what amounts to exercises in traditional collaborative storytelling. Remember, the realm of fiction responded almost immediately to the advent of the roleplaying game with those “choose your own adventure” books of the ’70s and ’80s, where the agency of the main character was expressed literally through the agency of the reader: a poor choice at the wrong moment in the story could spell ruination and the end of the story, while a wise choice at the right moment would allow the protagonist to flourish and the tale to continue. And much of what I’ve done in gaming expresses the idea that those kinds of experiences aren’t limited to just adventure stories, but can also work for horror and for even weirder stuff, too.

You recently answered the question, “Are roleplaying games art?” by noting that one of the things they do is allow players to “live virtually as another sentient being.” How does this differ from inhabiting a protagonist in a traditional novel?

By nature, roleplaying is much more immersive, or at least potentially so. When I’m reading straight prose, I feel like I’m along for the ride—the proverbial fly—often either rooting for or against the person I’m orbiting at the time. When you’re experiencing the story, and therefore the horror, from inside the protagonist, it’s you on the hook for that character’s decisions. You know how during a slasher flick, viewers will admonish the kids running from the psycho killer? “Don’t go in there, idiot!” and all that jazz? Well, in a roleplaying game it’s the “viewer” who’s responsible for most of those actions, which can really bring it home in horror.

Many of these games, going back (of course) to Dungeons & Dragons, have huge fan followings. When you’re writing for one of these games, do you feel extra pressure to please those fans?

To an extent, sure, but I think that’s mostly a good thing. Just like in any media, a small minority will always hold a writer a little too accountable to their personal preferences, but most fans just want to see that you get it and that you can riff on it compellingly and effectively. Some properties are a lot more about a specific setting and storyline than others, and that certainly will factor into managing expectations, not just of fans but also of the publishers. And sometimes it’ll come down to which project within a particular property and publisher.

You mentioned D&D, and that’s a great example: I’ve been lucky enough to write on a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons books, but not all those books carried the exact same weight in either fan expectation or publisher scrutiny. And that makes sense, since we’re talking about game books, where different books often present new design elements at different scales; R&D-intensive offerings are bound to be the more closely supervised projects on the schedule. Like the books themselves, pleasing the fans is a collaborative effort. We all share the weight.

One of your most recent projects was a game called Mummy: The Curse (which is different from an earlier game called Mummy: The Resurrection). Mummy: The Curse is a fascinating combination of fantasy, history, monster tropes, and gaming necessities. These games obviously rely on archetypal monsters, many of whom are firmly established characters in popular culture. Is it ever difficult to choose what parts of the stereotypes you keep and what parts you replace with your own creation?

Not for me, no. I’m a bit of an artistic purist, which in this case mostly means that, for me, everything derives from inspiration. If you’ve got a clear vision of what a thing is, holistically, and what it wants to be as a finished product, then pretty much all of those questions answer themselves. Vision is like an iron-clad constitution that way: simply holding the question up to the source will serve as guide for incorporating it within the material. You mentioned the differences between the two Mummy games, and that’s a case in point. In Resurrection, the protagonists were effectively agents of the circle of life, granted immortality so that they could prevent the world from falling to corruption and death. Knowing their concept tells you what classic mummy tropes to include, and how. By extension, the protagonists of Curse are pretty much the polar opposite, and so that essential nature likewise informed the decision-making. Beyond that, the needs of functionality come first, and that helps make decisions easier, too.

Most of the gaming manuals include pieces of actual fiction, as well. What purpose do these short stories serve? In Mummy: The Curse’s corebook, the opening story takes place in a snowy landscape. Obviously, this tells people right up front that their mummies needn’t be found only in blistering deserts, but do these stories perform other functions?

First, that’s awesome that you caught and appreciated that. Yes, an introductory story that contextualizes things that way, all frozen tundra, is an intentional way of informing the reader that this ain’t his or her daddy’s mummy, and that everyone better hold onto their hats. But generally, those short stories serve the purpose that all fiction serves, and especially tie-in fiction, which is to be illustrative of its source. They’re like the epigraph at the start of a really good novel: A great epigraph can simultaneously introduce and sum up the novel it precedes.

These games make extraordinary use of real folklore and history, sometimes even referring to very obscure creatures or legends found only in a few academic or antique books. Do you think your research is more akin to non-fiction writing than fiction?

I can see what you mean, especially since a lot of game book material isn’t presented in strict prose form, but from my point of view as a writer, it’s more about the research itself than the final form, tense, or approach of the narrative. Whether you’re writing in straight prose or not, if you need to do a certain kind or volume of research to write about the topic effectively, you’re doing the same research regardless. But because most game sourcebooks are intended to inspire and provide for a number of possible stories, they do end up requiring more total research (and yes, some of it pretty obscure at times) than the average fiction novel. But of course some fiction writers do years’ worth of research for a single novel, so it’s a gamut thing.

In writing a game, detail is important because it might affect game play. Would that be an asset or a detriment to fiction writing?

It can be both, I think. Like most things, it comes down to understanding the form. A lot of competent fiction writers aren’t quite as competent when they try their hands at, say, screenwriting or graphic novels and comics, and most of the time that’s because they don’t understand the needs of the new form. And so, yes, a lifelong RPG writer who tries to apply his or her understanding of RPGs to crafting and executing a novel is liable to run afoul of the same problem (and I know folks who have done just that). On the other hand, a lifelong RPG writer who understands the nature and needs of long-form prose can use that detail-oriented mind and experience to a benefit, especially when working on a novel that is itself detail-oriented.

Are there, in fact, non-roleplaying game-related novels in your future?

There are, indeed. I’ve written tie-in novels before, but I’m most excited about the independent stuff that’s currently in the works. I’ve got the first novel in what I hope to be a (very) dark epic-fantasy series making the rounds as we speak. If it finds the right publisher and audience, the cycle will end up being my Song of Ice and Fire/Lord of the Rings/what have you, and I’m very excited to get working on Book Two, which already has an outline and a title. Martin’s work has opened the door for this series, it’s fair to say, but the similarities end there.

Equally exciting, though, is my new collaboration: I’m thrilled to announce here in this interview that I’m writing a horror novel with Craig Spector, one of the OGs of modern horror. Those who remember the Skipp & Spector days can rest assured that what Craig and I are doing isn’t splatterpunk or its inheritors, but something entirely new. Like with my epic fantasy cycle, the intent is for the Spector & Suleiman collaboration to push beyond just one novel. (We have Plans™.) Craig Spector has returned to writing collaborative horror, I’m the guy he’s chosen to work with, and all of that is pretty cool by me.

You’ve put together several anthologies of original stories based on games you’ve worked on, including the recently-released Mummy: The Curse tie-in, Curse of the Blue Nile. These books employ a range of both game and fiction writers. How do you choose the authors for these books?

Well, first I get myself a big-ass dartboard. Then I write down a bunch of names on small pieces of triangular paper. Then I affix the pieces of paper to the dartboard. Then it’s fun time!

But seriously, folks . . . it’s a great question, but the unsatisfying truth is that there’s really no one pattern or system for filling out a table of contents on every collection, although I will say that sometimes there is a desired approach for a given project. That was the case with Curse of the Blue Nile, where I wanted to find the sweet spot in the material: to intentionally pair writers known mostly for their RPG work, but who were fine fiction writers, with writers known mostly for their fiction, but who I knew could fully understand the needs of the setting. That approach might not have been ideal for a project where uniformity of voice was paramount, but because Mummy is so versatile, I wanted to assemble a team that could represent that versatility well without being so all over the map as to fail to accomplish its purpose, which was to illustrate.

Several of your recent anthologies have included rising genre authors like Damien Angelica Walters and Mercedes M. Yardley. Do you read a lot of horror fiction?

I try to, yes. Horror is my main bag, and so I try to keep up with what’s happening in it. As a kind of baseline, I read everything that Stephen King and Clive Barker put out, but also look for the up-and-coming voices, one of whom you just mentioned—Mercedes M. Yardley—just won her first Bram Stoker Award, and deservedly so. Keep an eye on that one, folks. A rising star, she is.

Roleplaying game books are often astonishingly attractive books, packed with both art and ingenious layout. Your anthologies include some of that same layout, making the books things of beauty. Do you ever find yourself wishing non-game-related books would be as well presented?

Sometimes, yes, because I’m a sucker for a beautiful book, but I’m also happy that RPGs have come to be synonymous with production value and design, and well, there are worse niches to fill. Remember, though, that non-game-related books did to try to do similar things once. If one is old or savvy enough, one recalls fantasy and adventure tales of yore, where art was incorporated as a way of making the characters and events come to life in an instant, visual way. Some of my colleagues love that stuff as much as I do, and I think you’re going to see more and more of that—a return to the ‘dual storytelling’ of old—as we move into the future here.

Crowdsourcing is a popular way of funding new games and supplements. Do they work well for roleplaying games because they allow fans to essentially create collectibles? And is the revenue from crowdsourcing necessary to create such high production values?

In a word, yes, to both questions. With print costs being what they are these days, and with digital being what it is these days, any RPG sourcebook beyond a certain scale is a prestige item, and therefore collectible to varying degrees; add in planned limitations on edition runs, and the market is essentially perfect for the collector’s world. But because a given publisher rarely knows what will become a break-out hit, it’s all but de rigueur these days to run a crowdfunding project for a big RPG. Even those who can afford to front all the many costs on such a project would rather not choose to, when they can tap into a proven extant community.

You’ve included a number of established female horror authors in your books, which might surprise non-gamers who nonetheless heard all the drama surrounding Gamergate. Have you always tried to involve women in your games and anthologies?

I have, but to be honest, I didn’t have to try very hard. Yes, certain segments of gaming are still mostly male in demographic, but everyone knows that, just as everyone now knows that that’s changed a great deal in recent years. What everyone might not know is that the numbers of girls and women in gaming, though smaller in the ’80s and ’90s, were always there. And always engaged. There were girls at my gaming table when I was in grade school, and I played in a game run by a woman when I was a tweener. I grew up on (and loved) tabletop gaming books that were written, co-written, illustrated, and edited by women.

I feel the same about the pure fiction side, though of course the two intertwine a lot. People like Lynn Abbey and Margaret Weis are known just as well to gamers who don’t read much fiction as they are to readers who don’t do much gaming. I read and work a lot in horror and fantasy, and as far as I can tell, women have always been present and strong in those arenas. Two of my all-time favorite horror writers were women, and if the last year is any kind of indicator, women are coming on like gangbusters in horror right now.

Your recent project The Lost Citadel is a shared world that involves not just writers, but also artists and musicians. Tell us about the inspiration for the project, and how all the different arts mesh within it.

I’m really enamored of the possibilities in blurring the lines between horror and fantasy, specifically, and of challenging the borders of the entire concept of genre, more generally. I’m also a big fan of “umbrella properties”—concepts so classic and/or robust that they benefit from the artistic expression of not just numerous artists, but numerous kinds of artists; writers to write the source material, yes, but also illustrators to visualize it and musicians to audiate it.

Novelist Ari Marmell (my long-time collaborator and partner in thought crime) and I came up with just such a property, and as soon as I’d developed the hundred-page setting bible, I knew that it was something not merely for us to get excited for, but to get others excited for.

Generally speaking, the idea is to get as many different views of this world as we can. The first fiction anthology, Tales of the Lost Citadel, gathers a roughly even mix of veteran horror writers (including five Bram Stoker Award-winners) and fantasy writers to offer their perspectives of the world of the Lost Citadel, while at the same time, we got some fantastic artists to illustrate their own views of the world, as well. Those who helped crowd-fund the anthology received these beautiful illustrations as thanks for helping us make it happen, which in turn made them collaborators of a kind on it, too. If and when the support is there, we’ve also got musicians lined up for a Lost Citadel soundtrack, including horror writer-musician Brian Hodge and my own interstitial rock band, Toll Carom. We’re not sure how far LC will go, but there are already plans in the works for a Lost Citadel RPG, which we’ll be crowd-funding, too.

The copyright page for one of your recent books includes this curious warning: “All mystical and supernatural elements are fiction and intended for entertainment purposes only.” Do people really try to use these books to create mummies or cast spells?

I sure hope not. The material might actually be just that compelling, but if so, it’s compelling only to human fans, and not to any higher powers who might grant super-human abilities. To my understanding, that disclaimer is all over our horror and dark fantasy RPG books in particular because the roleplaying exercise is specifically about putting one’s self in the driver’s seat of the protagonist, and not because of any actual instances where it became a real-life problem and the books were somehow implicated after the fact. Obviously, some concepts are less worrisome than others: Mummy’s sister game is called Mage, and well . . . logically, it’s a lot easier for one to potentially get confused and think one might be an actual sorcerer than to get confused and think one might secretly be a walking 6,000 year-old proto-Egyptian corpse. I’ve seen confused before, and that would be pretty good and confused.

Those of us old enough to remember the anti-D&D hysteria of the ’80s know this stuff is no laughing matter, though, however absurd it might seem. If even one desperate kid decides to wrap his cry for attention in the trappings of the hobby, a storm of trouble can ensue. That storm might be less than rational or fair in its intensity, but that won’t stop it from coming.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.