Although it’s not particularly similar, this story reminds me of the Richard Matheson story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Was this or the subsequent Twilight Zone adaptation inspiration, or did something else inspire the story?
Any similarity to that story (and the famous, subsequent adaptations) is a coincidence, though the setup is almost identical (a man with a fear of flying is on an airliner), so there may well be some unconscious borrowing going on.
The idea of an airline disaster goes back to old dreams and nightmares. When I was a boy, I caught part of a horror/disaster film called The Medusa Touch at my grandmother’s house. I was just in time to watch the lead character, played by Richard Burton, bring a jet airliner down into a city skyline simply by staring at it. This sequence haunted me for decades and, of course, was horribly echoed on September 11th, 2001. Airports and airplanes have throughout my life figured into my dreams—usually in an ominous if not disastrous sense. The worst of these dreams—and the worst of my adulthood—I had late in the process of writing what would become “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” (bit.ly/3gn2BlB). In that piece (the hub of my first collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism) and the other individual pieces in that book, a terrible airliner disaster, Flight 389, became a touchstone.
I have a lot of experience, both professionally and personally, with disasters. I won’t insult the people who’ve also endured these life-changing events and their slow, painful aftermath by referring to the good that can come of them, but there’s no doubt that they result in profound destabilization of forms, physical and otherwise, both in a positive and negative sense. Significant hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding, ice storms, tsunamis, all that nature throws at us and the slew of human-created disasters as well, teach victims the hard way that their lives are fragile and temporally insignificant. Some take solace and motivation from this realization. Some are destroyed by it.
That central story I mentioned earlier, “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” took many years of writing and rewriting until its final form, and my friend and mentor, Thomas Ligotti, gave me copious notes on the drafts I created of it, especially in the 2000s. In an email, written in October of 2008, Tom suggested that I create a scene on the doomed Flight 389 airliner itself. Though I never took him up on that challenge in the years that followed, about a year ago when I was revising and expanding my old book for a fully illustrated edition included in the Secret Gateways box set (bit.ly/3B1FJjI) , I was reminded of that suggestion and went back to the well. After months of quarantine and all the initial scares and paranoia surrounding the pandemic, the idea of flying in a metal tube full of random passengers was especially horrible. So, of course, it was an ideal time to write “Flight 389.”
You live in New Orleans. How much of your environment and experience living there makes it into your stories?
I’ve lived in New Orleans with my family for just over two decades, including before and following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005. The initial shock and long aftermath/recovery were and continue (to some extent) to be central in my life. There is a pre-Katrina New Orleans and a post-Katrina New Orleans. In many respects, New Orleans is my haven—the only place in which I’ve ever felt truly at home. That stated, there’s no doubt that the seeping, humid atmosphere of the place has infected my writing over the years. The imagery from a disaster like Hurricane Katrina shows up in a more metaphysical sense, though certainly the high-casualty airline disaster and its aftermath mirrors how New Orleans is still haunted by the specter of Katrina.
You do an excellent job of invoking all the senses in your writing. What strategies do you use to imbue your stories with a full sensory experience?
Thank you. I think I’m sometimes more and sometimes less successful in evoking “a full sensory experience” in my writing. In “Flight 389,” I felt like it was important to describe how the various stages of the flying experience made him feel, and all his senses needed to be in play. The last time I traveled alone by air (in August of 2019, for NecronomiCon), I jotted down my own feelings and thoughts about the different phases of my flight, which became the outline for “Flight 389.”
Are you afraid of flying? If so, what do you think sparked that fear?
This may be a bit of a surprise to readers of the story, but I love flying and have ever since I can remember. The very things that Jeffords obsesses over (takeoff, cruising, and landing), I also obsess over, but it’s all an immersive, fascinating, exciting experience to me. There is some fear, too, but it’s not negative or overwhelming.
All that stated, I appreciate and respect the nightmarishness of flight. As I mentioned before, I have a lot of airport-based dreams and nightmares. But most of the anxiety I feel has to do with everything that needs to be done before boarding the plane—especially the security screening process. Once I’m onboard and buckled in, I’m usually in good spirits.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
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