David Nickle's Worlds of Horror

With links to free podcast fiction on Pseudopod, blogger Alasdair Stuart interviews horror author David Nickle

David Nickle is one of the best writers you've not heard of. His horror fiction is inventive, horrific and most of all, humane, pulling back the curtain to show us the people behind the monsters, the tragedy behind the horror and then, showing us that it makes no difference and both the monster, and the reader, are doomed anyway.

I found David's work through hosting Pseudopod , where he's had several stories presented and met him in person at this year's World Horror Con in Brighton where I found out he's both fiercely smart and as affable as his stories are unsettling. We got talking about his work, and horror, and that led to the interview below which covers everything from Captain Scarlet fanfic to the growing success of movies like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

How did you get started as a fiction writer?

David Nickle: You'd pretty much have to go back to pre-school for that, and a sheaf of dictated Captain Scarlet fanfic transcribed by my mother and illustrated by me. Those stories, and many dozen others, have not seen the light of day in many years. I really got going as a fiction writer in my mid-20s, after I'd been working as a reporter for a few years. At that point, I deemed myself wise enough in the ways of the world to be able to actually say something interesting about it. So I wrote many other stories - myself this time - and those too have not seen the light of day for many years.

My big debut as a published fiction writer came after the late Judith Merril introduced me to a crew of other writers in Toronto who she'd assembled into a Milford-style writing workshop, named after the Cecil Street Community Centre in downtown Toronto where we met in early years. It was, and is, a very good writing workshop. Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder are early-adopter alumni of the group; Peter Watts joined some time after proof-of-concept satisfied him. For myself, the back-and-forth was what it took to move my writing from enthusiastic to professional. A year or so in, my stories started selling.

And I was off.

You've had a lot of success with your short stories. What drew you to the medium?

Nickle: I've always loved short fiction as a reader - particularly short horror fiction. Horror novels can get flabby if you're not careful, and even if you are. But short horror stories are a sprint and in the hands of a master they deliver an emotional punch like nothing else. I like it as a writer too; it allows you to keep the tale in your head, and set it down with a good deal more precision.

What drew me to the medium initially, though, was short stories. Every single story in Stephen King's Night Shift; The Monkey's Paw; Bartleby the Scrivener; I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Lucius Shepard and Connie Willis and Spider Robinson. I wanted to do stuff like that.

What do you like about working short as opposed to long?

Nickle: Instant gratification is the quick answer, but that wouldn't be accurate. I have to admit that short stories aren't always instant for me as a writer. It can take weeks or months to get a story onto the page - at least to my own satisfaction. And unless there's a waiting anthology editor who's requested the piece, it can be months or years before the story's actually in print.

But there's something beautifully austere about short fiction. Because there's so little space, it forces you to really condense - and therefore intensify - the story. And if it turns out there's no story there... well, it doesn't take as long to work that out.

Longer works are a different game, and I like them too. I don't happen to have written as many novels as I have short stories - mostly because I'm a slow writer, and novels take a LONG time. With that said, I like writing novels too, and have written more than anyone's seen.

One of the things that fascinates me about your stories is your ability to overlay the normal and mundane onto the utterly horrific. It gives the stories human scope but sets them in a very bleak, large context. Why does this sort of piece interest you? What draws you to it?

Nickle: It's funny - I don't think integrating the mundane and the horrific is anything unusual. If I'm thinking about horror, it's that intersection I'm thinking of. The Exorcist isn't a terrifying novel and film because there's a demon in it; it's because the demon has possessed a little girl in a believable single parent household filled with people who share the hopes, dreams and foibles that we all have. Dawn of the Dead isn't set in a spooky Tim-Burton-esque graveyard, but in a suburban shopping mall like the one down the street from us.

I'm also interested in horror tropes as a way to get at bigger themes; I think of the genre as the bastard offspring of Alice Munro and Bram Stoker (whose vampire villain really kicks it up when he insinuates himself in the middle of a British drawing room drama). So I think grounding stories in a very real place is empowering - more so, I think, than coming up with a cool new monster.

What's the single piece you're happiest with so far?

Nickle: The Sloan Men. It's frustrating, in that it's the earliest story in the collection and one of my first published stories, and you'd think I'd have been able to do something I liked better by now, but there you are. Part of my affection for it may be because the story's done well for me. It was reprinted in one of Datlow and Windling's year's best anthologies, adapted for television, and stood up well enough to be the opening story in the collection. But aside from that - I just like the little tyke.

Is there anything you'd want to change in any of your work? Anything you'd like to take a second run at?

Nickle: I would clean up some of the dialogue in The Sloan Men; there are a few spots where it really clunks.

Tell us about your new novel, what were the different challenges in putting that together?

Nickle: The new book, which is due out from ChiZine Press in the spring of 2011 as we speak, is called Eutopia. It's a historical horror novel about the early American eugenics movement set in an experimental utopian community in north Idaho about 100 years ago. It is also about a terrible monster, dark secrets and awful betrayal. The usual stuff.

The book was a big challenge, but in a good way. I have never been to Idaho. I have never been to 1911. I don't know very much about biology and genetics, or medicine, or the eugenics movement.. So there was a lot of research before I could get started, and even more as I proceeded. But it was good for the book, and fascinating stuff. The things that the Eugenics Records Office got up to in 1911 - you don't want to know (although I'll tell you, if you read the book).

The research was also good for my heart health. I am very lucky to have a friend in Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction writer and biologist, and also, like me, an early-morning runner. We spent a lot of time hashing through the particular scientific details of the book as we slogged along the trails around Toronto's waterfront, in the hours before more sensible people woke up. In so doing, we figured out a lot of biology that I would have otherwise completely pooched.

Who would you say are your major influences?

Nickle: Initially, I'd say writers like Fritz Lieber, Richard Matheson, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury all left their heel-mark in my forehead at an early stage. Somewhat later came Mervyn Peak and John Irving, Joe Lansdale and Peter Straub.

But I lately find my influences expanding, or maybe becoming more diffuse. I recently stumbled into some of Roald Dahl's old adult fiction the way some of us stumble upon long-lost relations. Raymond Carver's fiction showed up at my door early last year and hung around through to the winter. I'm really taken with Glen David Gold's stuff, books like Carter Beats The Devil. And I'm taking things from the work of Neil Gaiman and China Meiville and Neal Stephenson too. So it's not all snootty mainstream writers.

What's your dream project? No budget restrictions, any media?

Nickle: Ooo. I would do a stop-motion film adaptation, in the style of 1970s-era Rankin Bass Christmas specials, of The Toy Mill, a story Karl Schroeder and I collaborated on back in the day, about a robber baron Santa Claus and a little girl who wants to be an elf. We expanded the story into a novel that was published back in 1997 called The Claus Effect, wherein Santa Claus morphs into a kind of festive Blofeld and chases innocent children across Europe as he gathers surplus Russian nukes for a Christmas no one will forget. But leave that for the sequel: The Toy Mill would make a nice Christmas special of its own. I would hire Amanda Palmer to be the voice of the little girl Emily, and Bill Nighy to play the Claus, and Dame Judy Dench to voice the Claus's long-suffering wife. Then I'd do a big media buy to run it in prime time worldwide, in glorious 3D HD, so that everybody had to watch it, whether it ruined their holidays or not.

What's next?

Nickle: Well, Eutopia first and foremost. I'm also working on a novel tentatively titled The 'Geisters, about poltergeists and the modern marriage. And yeah - more short stories. I can't seem to quit 'em.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is one of my all time favorites too and it sits on the boundary between SF and horror. Is SF/Horror something that's ever attracted you?

Nickle: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream freaked me out bad, when I first read it, at the tender age of 12. To my ever-lasting shame and regret, the story had such an impact on me that it was the one book in my depraved little library I agreed to chuck, as a sop to anti-horror-fiction parental pressure. By the time I realized my mistake, the damn thing was out of print...

Science Fiction/Horror has always held a great attraction to me. I've written some of it myself in short form, and my novel Eutopia is very deliberately a science fiction horror novel. Terrible and fantastical things occur; but they're all based in extrapolated biology.

The thing to remember about horror is this: it's nothing more (or less) than an emotion. The story that surrounds that emotion can, and really should, take off in all sorts of directions. And basing it in the natural world (or natural as extrapolated in a sf-nal way) is in a lot of ways more powerful than presuming a magical or theological cause of things. To put it another way: the Devil's good for scaring Christians. But we all live - and die - in the material world. We all worry about that.

I take your point about horror and the mundane (and will never be able to view Dracula as anything but an interloper at a drawing room drama now). It's particularly interesting as there seems to be something of a move back towards that type of intrusion of the awful into daily life, especially with movies like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Do you have any ideas to why that sort of horror is on the rise again?

Nickle: When I was growing up a lot of horror was self-consciously gothic. Haunted houses were mouldering old antebellum hulks, such as most of us had never seen. Vampires wore black capes and had widows'-peaks. It seemed like a lot of horror fiction went out of its way to be "spooky." Or in film, it would play deliberately to a slasher-movie formula: attractive young people are gathered together in an isolated place, and they all marched to their doom along pre-determined tracks. These things all served to remind moviegoers that they were watching a film, and not a life - and disengage a little bit.

We all want to disengage a little bit from horror - that's one of the reasons we watch horror films and read horror novels rather than going into war zones and other awful places, and living the dream (or nightmare) ourselves. But when we get too jaded, those stories become risible.

So when movies like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity (or the Blair Witch Project, for that matter) come along, they get us because they don't play the drive-in double-feature game. They bring the horror home.

Now to your question: why now? I think part of it has to do with the fact that in the Facebook/Twitter/iphone age, we all live our lives through a lens. We interact with more friends and family than ever, but we do it online, with cute little YouTube videos and Facebook updates. So when we see something shot on handheld video, with one of the actors behind the camera, whimpering about the awful noise coming down Fifth Avenue - we know about that; we can relate.

Or to put it another way: we're defenseless.

Thanks David.

David's anthology, Monstrous Affections is available now through Amazon and ChiZine books . David's short stories can be found in the Pseudopod archives for free - listen to The Radejastians , The Inevitability of Earth and The Sloan Men . David Nickle has a blog here . Alasdair Stuart is one of our regular site contributors - read more from our 12 bloggers here .