Today we’re talking to author Josh Malerman about his newest novel, Unbury Carol. While most horror readers know Josh from his smash breakout Bird Box and works like Goblin and Mad Black Wheel, Unbury Carol is a Weird Western that mixes in elements of fairy tales and the supernatural, too. Join us as Josh unearths the secrets behind Unbury Carol (and we explore a few side trails, too).
HELLNOTES: Let’s start at the beginning for those cowpokes that have just wandered in off the Trail. Can you briefly tell us what Unbury Carol is about? Beyond that, what was the spark of inspiration that set you off on this journey?
Josh Malerman: It’s a story about a woman heading to a premature burial, by way of a condition she has in which she appears to be dead… when she isn’t. Some people want her buried alive and others don’t. The ones who don’t are doing all they can to bust up the funeral in time, but the ones who do are many. I guess you could say there’s a clock in the book, in this way, as Carol’s funeral approaches. But make no mistake, there is no Prince Charming in this book, and Carol’s gonna have to save herself.
The ideas for this book came from a few places at once, one of which found me bored in a grocery store, pretending to light the aisles on fire… then being struck, wholly, by the character of Smoke. An outlaw who doesn’t use a gun. A madman in an era when medicine and the instruments doctors might use aren’t sophisticated enough to detect things like Carol Evers’s heart beating when she’s deep inside her comas. So Smoke did a lot for me, though he doesn’t appear in the book until about page 60 or so. So for those who give up on the book early all I can say is… oops. You missed out on Smoke.
HN: What was the process of writing and revising Unbury Carol like? I’ve read elsewhere that you wrote the first draft in a mad dash of energy, but is that normal for you or was drafting this book different than your previous ones? How was the editing process with Unbury Carol similar to your other novels and how was it different?
JM: I guess it was “normal” but that feels like a crazy word to use because none of this feels normal. The rough drafts usually do come out in a fireball frenzy which, of course, means I’m shackling myself to severe rewrites each time around. I don’t mind that. And obviously I’d take that exchange seeing as I keep doing it that way and have for a number of books now. Think of it as a photograph: there are all sorts of mystic trickery you can do to the photo after it’s taken but don’t you want that initial image to be alive? All on its own and in its own way? So the rewrites are intense… okay. I can live with that and I even like that because after a book or two you really see how much good the rewrites are doing you. Man, I’ve been so impatient that I would’ve put the rough drafts out, as is. And I would’ve been embarrassed of them, too. Turns out that rewriting is where it’s at. But those lunatic first rounds, when you could be writing gibberish for all you care, are the soul of the whole enterprise.
HN: It isn’t a spoiler (I hope) to note that this story has supernatural horror elements alongside the Western motifs. Was there a point where you considered just doing one or the other? Were there any particular works that you drew from – either consciously at the time or now recognizing in retrospect – for either of those elements individually or for the blending?
JM: I don’t think I considered a straight “western” while working on her. There were moments, early drafts, where Rot was standing out to me. Like, Am I using him just because I love supernatural elements? Or does he actually make sense here? Thing is, I don’t think the answer to those questions matter. I liked Rot and by the time the book came out I loved him. One thing I noticed was a lack of concrete time or place. Is this the old west? No. The old north? Maybe. Is this a… Midwestern? Yeah, I like that. And not just in the way of geography, but also a “middle” western, somewhere between a western novel and not. At one point I wrote an airplane landing in Griggsville. Just to officially let the reader know that the Trail and all its towns were most definitely not the old west. But that felt like a step too far and I got rid of it.
HN: Beyond the obvious Western influence, the setting of the Trail has a sort of magical feel that some reviewers have likened to fairy tales. Rather than a dusty road across an empty desert, our travelers face a haunted path through the dark woods and, although they’re not headed to Grandma’s House, there is a sleeping beauty at the end. Was mixing these elements always the intention, or did it come about as the story progressed? Moreover, the journey along road adds a layer of structure to the narrative that helps to drive it along and orient readers, but was that a pre-planned effect or a happy development?
JM: Great questions. The Trail just developed by itself. But in hindsight it’s a lot like the river in Bird Box. A linear path the mains have to travel and we know (or hope, as readers) that shit is going to intensify as, in this case, Moxie and Smoke go. As far as the “Sleeping Beauty” thing… I can see why people are saying that, but Carol isn’t any sleeping beauty to me. For starters, there’s nary a reference to her being a “beauty.” She’s described more as a wealthy, do-it-herself woman who happens to die a few times a year. She wears cowboy boots and button-up shirts. She oversaw the installment of the very storm room she’s kept in after she falls into Howltown. But I get it. She’s “asleep,” in a way, and someone might think James Moxie is the equivalent of Prince Charming, but anybody who makes it to the end knows he’s not. He’s propelled by guilt, mostly, and hardly even fancies himself a real outlaw seeing as his legend came on the heels of a magic trick performed in a duel. The magician, of course, knows his magic isn’t real. But if we were to continue the fairy tale thread… I guess that would make Rot… the witch? Not sure. Smoke is just a loose bird. Doesn’t fit into the narrative. I suppose Rot and Smoke could both be the Big Bad Wolf together. Smoke would certainly have no issue dressing up as anybody’s grandma.
HN: Despite the ticking clock set up early on, I was impressed by the amount of time the narrative was wiling to spend delving into the colorful side characters and towns along the way. The triggerman Smoke is a particularly iconic character, but also people like Bunny with his deck of cards that tracks the movements of outlaws along the Trail or Moxie’s fawning fan Rinaldo. Which of these characters or sides stories were your favorites to develop? Do you have any plans to return to the Trail, either in long or short form?
JM: So, lately I’ve been reading a lot of what I call “bullet thrillers.” Superbly crafted stories that keep building up up up. The writing is magnificent, the plots are tight as hell. And you know what?
Turns out I’m looking for some elasticity.
Allison (my fiancée) asked me how I was liking one recently and I told her, “This book is… too thrilling.” She laughed, thinking I was kidding, but I wasn’t. I want some tangents in the books I read. I want the kitchen sink book, like It, where every tale told doesn’t have to be there, but by the end you, the reader, walk away wiping the story from your body as if you were drenched in it. So there’s some patience in Unbury Carol. Some tangent. Yet, it isn’t the slow burn I’ve seen some people review it as. My God, you want a slow burn? Read some Thomas Tryon. Or Virginia Woolf. I wanna make sure that I, as a reader, that I don’t fall into this quick edit thing, that I don’t need a change every half a page in the same way everybody needs a change every three seconds in a video online. It’s a book and I want to sink into it. Now, you can sink fast. This doesn’t have to be a “slow burn.” I don’t subscribe to the school that says you gotta “hook” someone in the first line, the first page. That sounds a little too much like the songs of a boy band. I wanna read an artist at work, at play, and trust that, when I pick up, say, a Kathe Koja book, it’s gonna be good no matter what the hell she writes because Kathe is good. I put my trust into the writer almost every time I read a book. Do I like some better than others? Sure. Of course. But for the most part I love them all.
Now, as goes the Trail… yeah I’d love to return. I’d like a whole novel dedicated to John Bowie, which more or less answers your question as to which peripheral I liked hanging out with the most. John and Hattie lit up the stage for me every time I returned to them. I’d like a whole John Bowie book. Whether he’s dead or alive on the pages.
HN: Given how much Unbury Carol appears to draw on fairy tale and Gothic motifs, and even some semi-steampunk elements with its homemade gadgets and sleights of hand – although perhaps “springpunk” or “stringpunk” might be more accurate – I’m curious as to what kind of research Unbury Carol involved. Were there historical or other fictional sources that you purposefully drew from, or did embracing this mélange free you to draw more on your imagination?
JM: Wow. First off I love “stringpunk.” I also love the fact that you’re bringing up steampunk at all. I hadn’t thought of that and now that you mention it, there’s no question this book has some of that. I did do some research, particularly on trick caskets. I was also reading a lot of magic books at the time, the history of magic, the books of Jim Steinmeyer (do yourself a favor and read The Last Greatest Magician in the World if you haven’t). It was an electrifying period for me; magic and my own book. I think it’s when Dwight uses the two-sided mirror that I realized how much those books were influencing Unbury Carol. Because at that point, everybody was employing some kind of magic. Smoke with his legs. Moxie in Abberstown. Rot in general. Dwight and Carol. Hattie and John Bowie. Rinaldo and Edward Bunny. So yeah, there was some research, but it was the fun kind.
HN: Beyond the mix of genres in Unbury Carol, are there any other kinds of mash-ups that you’re particularly interested in exploring? Are there any recent books that you would recommend or are looking forward to reading that are also remixing and mashing-up genres?
JM: I wrote another kind of western a few years back, a landscape in which fiction is illegal, and these “outlaw storytellers” go from town to town, telling stories in the basements of saloons. I definitely don’t set out to intentionally mash this genre with that, etc., but I’m also aware enough to see it when it happens. So I’m not sure what other mash-ups I might be interested in, but I do know that if I see a strange combination rising up in one of the books I’m writing, I won’t be shy about it. We’re playing with fiction here. Let’s fire our governors. Let’s shoot them dead without even drawing our guns.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? Not just what projects are coming out soon in your writing life, but what other irons do you currently have in the fire?
JM: So Bird Box has been filmed. I hear it comes out in December. Unbury Carol has been optioned as well, but I’m supposed to keep mum about that. I wrote a script for A House at the Bottom of a Lake. That was as hard a writing experience as any I’ve ever had. I don’t know. Working on a new rough draft now (three days deep) and getting ready to open one I wrote recently with a mind to rewrite her. Also, my friends and I, here in town, we call ourselves A Casket Full of Rough Drafts and we put on wild readings of the books. We’re planning some horror theater, anthology horror, live on the stage, five to six short story segments with an ensemble cast. Once we have that going (and we’re already close) I will be sure to tell you. That’s been a fantasy of mine for a long, long time. Horror theater! Can you imagine it?
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box, Unbury Carol, Goblin and others. He’s also one of two singer-songwriters for the Detroit rock band The High Strung, whose song “The Luck You Got” can be heard as the theme song for the hit Showtime show “Shameless.”
Find Josh Malerman’s books here: https://www.amazon.com/Josh-Malerman/e/B00K8R9C8Q/