I loved this story! One thing that particularly drew my attention is the presence of God and religion; I find that such stories, when executed well (The Exorcist and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, to name a few), are elevated by the existence of a set moral universe and cosmology. What about religious-tinged horror appeals to you, and what brought you to write this one?
I’m so glad you like it! One aspect of religion that I admire tremendously is how it’s (among other things) this massive effort to find a language for experiences that are just outside the boundaries of language. I do feel that’s a place where religion and cosmic horror intersect. And of course, one of the fun devices of religious-tinged horror is the inherent promise of transgression.
I do like those intersecting expectations when you’re navigating horror and religion, that you’re going to take some familiar images and tropes, but then you get to mess with them. What prompted “Esther (1855)” is that I wrote a Lovecraft-inspired novel that’s coming out in 2023, and I wanted to do a kind of origin story for one of the characters (a creepy little girl haunting a Vegas hotel), so I thought it’d be fun to mix that in with a loose variation on the early days of Las Vegas itself (a group of Latter-Day Saints setting up a way-station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles).
Despite (or due to, really) the minimalist language, it really captures the feeling of desolate desert and matches the landscape with the exhausted state of the battered men. What about the setting and the Joshua Tree clicked in this story for you?
The language owes so much to Cormac McCarthy, especially Blood Meridian. The story took on its Meridianish tone and syntax after a couple of failed, flat drafts. I knew what I had seen and felt, I’d lived in Vegas for years and had hiked a lot of the terrain, but it wasn’t until I took on that voice that everything fell into place. It was all a big effort to try to find the right language for the life, beauty, and desolation of desert spaces—and also how small and vulnerable you feel when you’re there, but also how wonderful it is to be a tiny part of these sublime spaces.
The use of “Abide with Me” as the child’s song is interesting. I did a little research, and that particular hymn is about death and having nobody but God at your side when life nears its end. It feels like the “face” mentioned repeatedly is omnipresent and looming at all times, very much reminiscent of the hymn. In the end, the child herself is just a singing “face.” I’d love to ask about your interpretation of the “face.”
One of my favorite cosmic-horror tropes is the suggestion that the awful thing the character experiences is basically, like, nothing compared to this immeasurable, even more awful horror that’s lurking just beyond. So that’s what prompted the “face,” this idea that there is an even greater, more malignant presence lingering deep below. And also of course there is some King James in there, too, from Genesis: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
The title really does a lot of work for this story, giving us presumably a fixed time period while also referring to an “Esther” not mentioned by name in the story. The mystery of that feels even grander when you read the title almost as a bible verse like “John 3:16.” It carries a lot of import and set me up perfectly as the reader. What would you say goes into a good title, and what made this one fit this story for you?
Thank you so much! I’m so proud of the title. I do feel that the shorter a piece is, the more work the title has to do. I teach writing, and this is one of the cheap tricks I always give my students: see how much information you can pack into a title in as short an amount of space as possible. Here, we’re getting the suggestion that the dead girl’s name may be Esther, but we’re also being told a super-specific date that grounds the story in a particular time while also suggesting that maybe Esther could pop up in 1954 or 2008 or 2023. My favorite titles are resonant and often declarative but also elegant in how they’re working so hard while pretending they’re not doing any work at all. (Poets are so good at nailing this balance: Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars,” Michael Robbins’ “Alien vs. Predator,” Jane Hirshfield’s “It Was Like This: You Were Happy,” practically any poem in Eve Ewing’s 1919.)
This story is so gorgeously written; where can we find more of your work?
Some newish stories are up online. “Trumbull,” which is my little sideways love letter to Thomas Ligotti, is available at Shenandoah (bit.ly/3Iuy68q). Another story, “A Subscribers-Only Sneak Peek into the Preliminary Report on the Conditions of the Camps,” can be found at a really cool new publication called The Sunday Morning Transport (bit.ly/3qn4TGB). And “Cerati After Cerati” is in Selected Shorts’ Small Odysseys anthology, which came out in March and was performed live. My collection Best Worst American is out from Small Beer Press (bit.ly/3JJMxY1), and while there are all kinds of stories in there, one of my favorite horrific bits I’ve ever written is in Best Worst American. It’s “Northern,” a super creepy Vegas story inspired by Cronenberg’s The Brood and by unlicensed plastic surgeries.
What do you have coming down the pipeline for us to look forward to?
I’m so excited about this! For years, I’ve been working on this horror novel about a hotel that eats people, and two undocumented Colombian siblings who end up in there. It’s finally coming out! It’s called Extended Stay. It is due in early spring 2023 from the fabulous Camino del Sol series run by University of Arizona Press. “Esther (1855)” and Extended Stay share the same universe—and they also share the same creepy undead girls, the same face. Lots more gore.
Spread the word!