Sunday, September 10, 2017

Stephen King's IT and me: Some thoughts on second thoughts

I have a confession to make -- about something I've been carrying around for years, for at least seven years -- since I submitted the manuscript for EUTOPIA: A Novel of Terrible Optimism to Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi at ChiZine Publications.

And it is this: in the original early draft, Jason Thistledown, one of the two dashing heroes of that novel, was considerably younger: fourteen years old, as opposed to the seventeen years old that he eventually became.  When I made the call to age Jason, I went through the manuscript and as best I could, tweaked his dialogue and reactions to reflect those crucial three years of maturation. But it wasn't enough to fool a few readers, who noted that in many ways he seemed much younger than his age. For them, the switch weakened the character and pushed them out of the story. For the sake of the art of EUTOPIA, I probably should have left Jason as he was: a fresh-faced orphaned Montana farm boy, taken under the wing of his aunt in 1911 and hauled all the way to northern Idaho, to endure the horrors inflicted by early-20th-century eugenicists and also a terrible parasitic monster the eugenicists had named Mister Juke.

The only trouble was that horror and atrocity weren't the only reasons Jason was heading to Eliada, Idaho. He was also going to fall in love with a rich girl, and eventually have some sex with her.

Now bear in mind, there are a lot of creepy things going on in EUTOPIA. It is about eugenics after all: that means racism, ableism, genocide all sit front and centre. Mister Juke's nature and its effect on the population of Eliada would for many readers count as blasphemous. The N-word is peppered through the manuscript to a degree that while historically accurate, did open the book (and me, as the white writer who put it all down) to potentially damning criticism.

But it struck me at the time that even in that difficult company, a fairly explicit under-age sex scene was not something I could get away with, or even necessarily should attempt to get away with. So I could either cut the sex scene which I felt was crucial to the plot, or I could change Jason's age, which I thought I could swing more easily. And I chose the second plan.

I've been wondering about that decision, since the book came out. In a sense it was an artistic compromise -- but only in a sense, in that it was a compromise that no one asked me to make. It was entirely my call, in the course of finishing a final draft.

I've been wondering about it more intensely just lately. With the release of the film adaptation, I'm reminded that it was a compromise that Stephen King refused to make, in the middle 1980s, when he submitted and then saw published his magnum opus at the time, IT.

IT is about a group of kids -- four boys and a girl, on the cusp of puberty, who in the 1950s band together to combat an alien evil that lives in the sewers underneath the fictional town of Derry, Maine and regularly preys on the town's children. These children endure awful horrors at the oversized clown hands of the creature, Pennywise a.k.a. It, discovering crucial powers magically derived from their own weaknesses as they go. Finally, the girl, an abused tomboy named Beverly, uses her weakness-turned-power -- her gender, as the novel depicts it -- to empower herself and the four boys for one last push, by having sexual intercourse with each of them. The afterglow of pubescent sex is enough to save the day, if not quite the world (that comes later).

For a lot of readers (including myself at the time) that scene was enough to push them right out of the story. The novel is strong enough to survive the experience. And King himself feels strongly enough about the decision to defend it, even now as the film (without that scene) is in theatrical release.

In 2013 he wrote this (an argument that King told Vulture.com just recently that he still stands behind):

"I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. The book dealt with childhood and adulthood –1958 and Grown Ups. The grown ups don’t remember their childhood. None of us remember what we did as children–we think we do, but we don’t remember it as it really happened. Intuitively, the Losers knew they had to be together again. The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues."
That's an argument that a lot of people aren't buying -- particularly given the addendum he added when asked about it by Vulture:


“To it I’d just add that it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders. That must mean something, but I’m not sure what.”
This is a passive-aggressive addendum if ever there was one, and I'd hold it more against King if he hadn't otherwise gathered such strong progressive and feminist cred, through word and deed over many decades.  He made an artistic choice in including that scene in IT, and he is standing behind it, and he makes the case that prurient interest in child murder might be just as indefensible as prurient interest in underage sex. I would apply the apples-for-oranges test to that one. The child murders aren't intended to excite anything but empathy for the victims and horror at the perpetrator, whereas the orgy-in-the-sewers is treated as at least redemptive and empowering -- invoking wish-fulfillment nostalgia about too-early sexual experience-- and at the worst, prurient and possibly titillating to pedophiles.

That said, I don't get a say in another writer's artistic choices. And even if I did, and I could somehow travel back in time and send editorial notes to the King residence in Bangor, I'm not sure what else could have been done to make the thematic points that King wanted to make with IT.

But it has got me thinking about my own artistic choices. In EUTOPIA, I did include a lot of other ugly and triggering things: all those instances of the N-word; articulation of the ethical justification for eugenics and forced sterilization; and depictions of sexual violence to a degree that has again, been a bit much for some readers.

Seven or so years later, I've written EUTOPIA's sequel: VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination. It's out now (trickling into bookstores as I write this). And again, I've made some artistic choices. The N-word is still there in the pages, but not tossed with such abandon as it was in EUTOPIA. Part of that, of course, is that the book takes place in Europe, in 1931, largely but not entirely in Germany. There were other words then and there for denigrating black people. But as the world has marched from 2011 to the place it is today, I also felt less easy about using it even in a historically correct context. As King put it himself, "there is more sensitivity about those issues." Although really, there always has been: pedophilia and racism both.

I didn't make any big changes draft to draft -- certainly not changes on the level of aging Jason Thistledown three years in order to keep a sex scene. The book is still filled with ugly eugenics, and shadows of genocide, a little bit of sexual violence... and of course, this time, card-carrying Nazis and their collaborators.

But honest: no explicit under-age sex at all. For the sake of the art of this one, there was no call for it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Orlok: The prologue to VOLK

As the release date grows nearer for VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination, we offer a small treat: the entire prologue, which appeared in a slightly different form in my 2014 collection Knife Fight and Other Struggles.

The prologue takes us to a certain Munich beerhall, in the years after the War to End all Wars, by way of a peculiar Bavarian spa. It may contain a certain amount of Nazi punching.

It is called ORLOK, and it is right here. 

VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination is available from ChiZine Publications (and all the usual sources) right here.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Some early praise for Volk

We are coming upon the day, now, when the new book drops. VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination is slated to hit bookstores and mailboxes of those who pre-ordered August 22. And we have been busy, fixing typos and checking translations (this is the kind of book that has translations in it) and laying out pages. We have also been putting the manuscript in front of others, in hopes that they might like it enough to talk about it in blurbs.

It has been trickier doing this for VOLK than it is with most books, because VOLK is a sequel, to my first book EUTOPIA: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. So it's best to read the one before the other. And the odds that one writer will like two books is somewhat lower than the odds that a writer will like just one.

But we founds some! Here is some advance praise (as it will say at the front of the book) from some very cool writers:

"David Nickle's compelling Volk extends and expands upon his Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. In elegant, engaging prose, Nickle explores the darker highways and byways of the middle decades of the last century, when science joined hands with frightening ideology. It's the latest contribution to what is emerging as one of the truly substantial bodies of weird fiction in the early twenty-first century, and further cements David Nickle's reputation as one of the leaders of his generation of writers." 
--John Langan, author of The Fisherman 
"David Nickle's sequel to his eugenicist novel Eutopia switches the action to 1930s Europe, but jumping to a different continent doesn't mean the gruesome horror is about to diminish. Volk is a worthy book with plenty of secrets to unravel. 
--Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, World Fantasy Award-winning editor

"David Nickle's distinctive mastery of voluptuous horror makes for a sequel every bit as enthralling and disturbing as Eutopia.
--Molly Tanzer, author of Vermillion

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Arrival at the Thorn farm: a VOLK preview

Below: An excerpt from an early chapter of VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination (due on bookshelves and from sellers in August 2017, from ChiZine Publications). This is a sequel to my 2011 novel, EUTOPIA: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. A lot of VOLK takes place in 1931, in a land far away from the northern Idaho mill town of Eliada and ten years after the events described in EUTOPIA. This bit, however, takes place immediately after those events.

* * *

Death preceded that raft by two days. Corpses, bloated and blue, their clothing slick tatters, floated down the Kootenai from Idaho and more than half went past the Thorn farm. By Lawrence Thorn’s firm order, not one of them got fished out. His boy Tom had spotted the first one—a lady, face down with her Sunday finery blooming around her like a swirl of pale algae. By the time Lawrence’d come to see, there were four others: two men, a negro woman, and a corpse that’d encountered such obstacles that it was no longer possible to tell. The river-bank smelled worse than a privy. 
“Go back to the house,” Lawrence ordered him when Tom showed him. “This isn’t wholesome.”

They weren’t wholesome, true enough. What Lawrence didn’t tell his boy was he feared they’d bring nothing but disease. Lawrence’s own father and mother had built the farm he owned in the very south of Alberta, and two seasons in, when he was but 12 years old, his mother had fallen ill and died. The dead folk in the river might’ve died like that and might yet carry the sickness.

So he sent the boy inside, found himself a stout branch, did the work of dislodging the corpses as they caught in the river’s edge—sending them onward down river to whatever fate might have in store for them. 
The raft came after the main flow of corpses had passed the farm. It was in the afternoon, a grey day threatening rain, and by happenstance, old Lawrence Thorn was at the river-bank with his branch—checking to see what horrors the river’d washed up, and moving them along as best he could. He was in a state of some melancholy by that point, and full wondering whether he was doing right or wrong. His own family might be protected from disease, sure enough, but what of the souls of those dead in the river, that Lawrence had let pass by without so much as a prayer for their passage to Heaven, never mind a Christian burial? What about the farm-steads down stream? The Blackfoot reserves, for that matter? If the bodies carried sickness, wasn’t he just sending it onward? What a terrible coward was old Lawrence Thorn.

It was in this temper, as the afternoon sun began to lower over the western mountains, that he spied the raft, with passengers on it, rounding the gentle bend in the river and appearing over some rocks.

The raft itself sat too low in the water, and listed badly to the right, where a tall young man stood trying to keep it steady with a branch about as big as Lawrence’s. A woman sat up at the opposite end of the vessel, cradling another woman’s head in her lap. In the middle, a negro sat clutching something in his arms, looking unwell indeed. 
A day prior, Lawrence might have been a mind to wave them all on, tell them to find somewhere else to put to ground. But—as he later explained to Jason, and Dr. Andrew Waggoner and Nurse Annie Rowe, over the sleeping form of Ruth Harper that evening—his aching conscience would no longer allow that choice.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Long Dream, and Caligari

Last year was a good year for short story publications, as I may have mentioned, and I've talked up a lot of them. I want to come back to one for a moment: "The Long Dream," which is a story that was solicited by Joe Pulver, a little over a year ago, for his dream anthology, as it were, The Madness of Dr. Caligari. 

It is a very specific sort of anthology: the stories are all inspired by a famous and influential piece of cinematic art history, the groundbreaking expressionist horror silent, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is to say, it is a step up in specificity to a lot of the other tribute anthologies that editors--Joe included--have put together, where the brush can be applied more broadly: writers take on stories inspired by the work of Robert Chambers, or H.P. Lovecraft, or Robert Aickman. Stories can range pretty far from the source in tribute, as long as they genuflect in the source's direction. 

But mining a single work of art: that's something else. It's more a work of illumination. The product will be of necessity bound tightly with the subject matter... producing at its best, a kind of arms-length collaboration, or at the least, a decent piece of fan fiction.


I have some experience with putting together such a project. In 2015, my wife and I assembled a collection of stories about James Bond--in particular, James Bond as Ian Fleming conceived him. You couldn't get in if you didn't have something to say about that flavour of James Bond. There was some wiggle room. But not much. This was delicate work.

The constraints are even tighter with Caligari, and for that, more deliciously challenging. Robert Weine's 1920 film is a surrealist masterpiece, set in a town of hallucinogenic distortion, its characters portrayed with expressionistic bombast. The 'monster,' the oracular somnambulist Cesare, is singular in purpose and affect. The villain, Caligari, is a marvellous creep of an alienist, but like Cesare, entirely singular.

But there was still wiggle room. Because while all the elements of this story are very singular--a zombie-like somnabulist, committing a series of proof-of-concept murders on behalf of the evil puppet-master Caligari--the context in which the film was made and released is vast. It is a film of and about Germany, fractured and broken after defeat in the First World War, and reanimating toward Nazism and the horrors of World War II. 

This is what interested me most: unsurprisingly, I guess, because I was working on the new novel, VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination, which is set in very late Weimar-era Germany. I'd already done the research, and so in "The Long Dream," I applied some of it. 

The Madness of Dr. Caligari has more to recommend it than "The Long Dream." The Table of Contents that Joe assembled includes the work of an A-list of writers in horror and the Weird, kicking off with Ramsey Campbell and finishing up with Gemma Files. All of these writers dove deep into a dark, dreamy posthumous collaboration with Weine and Pulver--making a book that is in its way, just as singular a work. The publishers, Fedogan & Bremer, are just putting together a special hardcover edition signed by all of us, and I am told that's available for pre-order here. But hardcover, softcover, and e-book editions are also available, here.

That is indeed a plug. I recommend picking this one up. But to give you an idea of what's in store, here's the opening passage from "The Long Dream."

In psychoanalysis as in all matters of scientific inquiry, it is too often the case that our failures advance our knowledge better than our successes. We can only truly take a measure of light by the shadows which surround it. 
.It is with this maxim in mind, gentlemen, that we begin our discussion of the case of a most unusual and shall we say enlightening patient of ours.
We will call him Conrad.
Conrad was a tall well-formed youth of sixteen when he first came to us. He complained of symptoms indicating anxiety and depression: which is to say, he was prone to bouts of melancholy and extraordinary lassitude. He was a vegetarian and loathed the touch of meat, much as he would recoil from human contact. His speech indicated a stutter. 
Conrad was reading in Vienna, and was referred to us by one of his tutors-- an Austrian veteran who had consulted here for compulsive pederasty two years past and pronounced himself cured, prematurely in our regard. Because of that, we at first suspected that the tutor's sexual attentions were a root of Conrad's difficulties and our first meetings delving in this direction. 
Conrad claimed that his tutor had never touched him erotically, either with his consent or in an act of rape, and neither had he done to his tutor. Cesar described himself as a-sexual in orientation, expressing a loathing for the fluids and touch of man and woman alike. 
We inquired as to his relations with his father and this seemed to yield more. At first, Conrad claimed to never have met his father, who died in the fields when he was but an infant. But when we asked of his mother, Conrad said that his most vivid and earliest recollection of her was in a carriage, at the side of a tall and muscular gentleman with a bald head and a terrible scar across his jaw-line who waved to Conrad before they set out along a road through a thick wood. Was he his step-father? Or an uncle? Conrad was quiet for a moment and stammered that no: he was his father. 
“But you said your father died when you were young. 
“An infant,” he said. 
“This does not sound like the memories of an infant." 
“No,” said Conrad, and his stutter became terrible as he explained that he must have been five or six at youngest. 
“Was it a photograph you saw?” we inquired, and at that, he shook violently and held himself, drawing his feet from the floor and his knees to his chest. We administered a small dose of chloral hydrate and were able to calm Conrad sufficient that he might elucidate a response. 
It was not a photograph, gentlemen. It was, Conrad confessed, a dream. 
Although we did not apprehend it fully until many years later, the dream was to be the crux of Conrad's neurosis, and was to become the sole engine of our inquiry.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The 2016 awards eligibility post. Awkward...

Here is an awkward, year-end post of the sort you'll be seeing a lot of from author-types: the awards-eligible-stories-for-the-coming-year's-award-season post.

I don't normally do this. But while 2016 has been a terrible year for many things, it has been for me at least a pretty good year for short story publication. Even with two story sales falling through the cracks in publishing schedules, I've got five stories out this year that I'm proud to have my name on in all sorts of different ways. 

I've mentioned each of these stories in blog posts throughout the year. But as the year draws to a close, I'm rounding them up here for posterity if not prizes.

So here they are, for people looking for an excuse to nominate a David Nickle story or novelette, or just like clicking links: the eligible stories that I published in 2016, by category:

Short Story: The Caretakers at Tor.com; The Parable of the Cylinder, at Canadian Notes & Queries; The Long Dream, in Joe Pulver's The Madness of Dr. Caligari.

Novelette: The Bicameral Twist, in Congress Magazine #1 (at once oh so not safe for work, and the only bona fide science fiction story by me  for 2016); Jules and Richard in Ellen Datlow's Children of Lovecraft. 


Friday, September 30, 2016

Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination


This one's been a long time coming, and it's going to be a little bit longer: the sequel to my 2011 novel EUTOPIA: A Novel of Terrible Optimism*. The book is due out  from ChiZine Publications a bit less than a year from now; the manuscript is not yet ready. But this week, my friend Erik Mohr delivered this cover--a to-my-eye spectacular iteration of the design that he supplied for the front of EUTOPIA.


By the time VOLK comes out, it will have been six years since that one, my first novel was published. For the people in EUTOPIA, it will have been a little longer: the story takes up 20 years later and a continent away, in France and Bavaria, in 1931.

I can't show off much of that now, but back in 2014 I did offer a taste, at the back of my story collection KNIFE FIGHT and Other Struggles: the prologue, "Orlok."

Here's a taste of the taste, of the opening, which takes place a little earlier than 1931:

Was he beautiful?” 
As though he had just registered his own nakedness at that instant, Gottlieb blinked and covered himself. 
Beautiful? No. He was compelling. Huge. Very muscular.” 
And you were sexually attracted to him." 
Of course I was.” 
The doctor allowed a dozen beats of the metronome before he spoke the obvious: “He was not like you.” 
No.” 
Gottlieb was grasping at his penis. The doctor made no attempt to disguise his observation of that fact and noted with satisfaction that Gottlieb didn’t seem to care. He was as guileless as a babe then. Could a metronome tick triumphantly? The doctor let it, twice more. 
Describe to me the ways he was like you.” 
Gottlieb drew a deep breath and turned to the windows. They were open a crack to clear the air from the morning’s session, and the sweet smell of apple blossom wafted in. The doctor was used to the smell—this was a room in which he spent a great deal of time—but he noted it, along with the flaring of Gottlieb’s delicate nostrils. 
How was he like you?” asked the doctor again. 
I don’t really know,” said Gottlieb. “I didn’t know him for very long.” 
Anything.” 
All right. He was German like me. And he was my age.” 
How old were you then?” 
The slightest frown. “Twenty-two.” 
The doctor looked again to the window. A conversation was drifting in along with the apple blossom scent. Two of the girls—Heidi and Anna? Yes. He recognized Anna’s lisp, and she and Heidi were inseparable. Ergo . . . 
They weren’t too distracting—they would barely register on the recording. If they lingered, or became silly, he would have to stand and shut the window, and risk disturbing Gottlieb. But the pair were on their way somewhere, and within four ticks of the metronome were gone. The doctor settled back. 
His hair was brown,” said Gottlieb. “Like mine too.” 
Three ticks. 
And he was homosexual,” said Gottlieb. 
Four more ticks now. 
But not like me.” 
Tell me how he is not like you.” 
As to his homosexuality?” 
If you like. Yes.” 
He is a masculine force. He looks at me and causes me to feel as if . . . as if I am not. Not masculine.” 
The doctor smiled. The last time Gottlieb had spoken of this moment, he’d immediately denied his homosexuality. They were progressing very well, at least as measured against their stated objective of delving into Gottlieb’s neurosis. The doctor started to reach for a pencil where his breast pocket would have been, but stopped himself and settled his hands back in his lap. He spoke quietly, calmly, in rhythm. Like a lullaby. “He is looking at you now,” he said.  
Tick. Tick. 
Gottlieb flushed and, as his hand came away from his penis, the doctor was pleased to see it was flushed too. 
In the beer hall, yes?” said the doctor. 
Gottlieb stretched his slender legs on the chaise longue, and his eyelids fluttered shut. A breeze from the window lifted the drapes, and raised gooseflesh as it passed. The air in the beer hall would not have been so fresh as this alpine breath. 
In the Bürgerbräukeller,” said Gottlieb. 
What does it smell like?” 
Many things. Food . . . there is a basket of schnitzel nearby. There is some smoke. I mean from tobacco. And the whole place stinks of old beer. Of course. Men have been drinking beer all day.” 
The doctor waited until it seemed as though Gottlieb might drift off to sleep, before prodding: 
Where is he?” 
Gottlieb smiled. “He is leaned against a pillar. By himself, across the hall from me. He is a very ugly man—his eyebrows meet in the middle of his forehead, so it seems he is scowling into his beer mug.” 
The doctor shifted in his chair. The towel he’d placed on the leather cushioning had moved, and in the warmth of the day the bare skin of his buttocks was sticking there. But he fought to contain his discomfort, his growing impatience. The metronome ticked seven times more before Gottlieb was ready to continue.
*Coincidentally, the second printing of EUTOPIA has just recently arrived. The first printing in 2011 was unusually large, because of an unusually large death-bed order from the late Borders chain, but it is finally all gone. It should be noted that this second run is NOT the illustrated version that I promised earlier this year. That will be coming out later, a little closer to VOLK's release.