Daniel Braum’s debut novel The Serpent’s Shadow (Cemetery Dance, 2019) is the story of a family vacation to Cancun during Christmas 1986, which just happens to intersect with an eruption of psychedleic cosmic horror and millenarianistic Serpent/Death cult activity. So, it’s a memorable holiday, to say the least. Carried along by a rich narrative voice and buoyed by lush setting details, The Serpent’s Shadow grabs readers in its coils and escalates at such a steady pace that by the time a sweet summer fling has progressed to a nightmarish and cataclysmic showdown, there’s no chance left for escape. It’s a seductive, propulsive, engrossing read that’s highly recommended for fans of horror that avails itself of room to breathe … until it strikes.
Today we’re pleased to have Daniel Braum talk with us about The Serpent’s Shadow, which is available now.
Hellnotes: Congratulations on the recent publication of The Serpent’s Shadow! This is – and correct me if I’m wrong – your first novel, so double congratulations are in order! For our readers who haven’t yet come across it in the wild, though, can you tell us a little about The Serpent’s Shadow?
Daniel Braum: Yes, this is my first novel, thank you! I am very excited not only to have my first longer work out there but to also have it published by Cemetery Dance. I got my start publishing short stories in Cemetery Dance Magazine, almost a decade and a half ago. Cemetery Dance E books also was the first to publish my first short story collection, so having my first novel with them really feels like home.
I am very setting- and place-oriented, so I think of The Serpent’s Shadow as a book about the Yucatan Penisula in Mexico back in the year 1986, a time when the area was at a crossroads as to just what kind of place it would be. In a way, the book operates as “secret history” of how it the once-wild Yucatan became the place it is today.
There are characters this book who are at “war.” Some people of the Yucatan welcome change and development and some of the benefits that can come with it. Others resist the destruction of the natural world and the death of ways of life that can happen too. In the middle of this unseen war are two young people, David and Ann Marie. While both of them are visitors, they are discovering their connection to the Yucatan and their connection to the strange things happening around them. There is a killer known as the White Lady terrorizing the resort town. People claim she is the embodiment of Sante Muerte, Saint Death out of Mexican folklore.
The book is full of the mistakes and consequences that happen when people encounter the supernatural and what we would call the occult.
HN: The Serpent’s Shadow creates an interesting tone by melding together a bunch of different stuff: travelogue, coming-of-age, mythology, cosmic horror. How did this melange come together? What was the impetus behind this story and how did you approach this?
DB: The travel aspects, coming-of-age, and mythology parts came naturally as they are not only the elements of the story connected to the initial inspiration, but also the kinds of stories I enjoy and enjoy writing. The tone and the horror and cosmic horror elements were the aspects that, for me, required thinking over and making specific choices. At the time I was writing the book I was thinking a lot about genre and structure and learning about the differences between genres and sub-genres and so on, specifically about what things we do as writers that steer a story into one kind of story to another.
Although I had published stories in Cemetery Dance and other venues I was not very certain that I knew what a horror story was or if I could write one if I set out to try. This sense of being un-learned and un-sure was a big part of my excitement. Of all the genres, horror was revealing itself to be the genre open to anything. Most importantly to me it was one that included whatever the hell I was doing and the kinds of stories I was writing with open arms. I wanted to learn what the common parameters and hallmarks were, both to be able to write one with certainty and to also learn how to write stories on the boundaries, such as the ones I had been creating, with more control.
I could very easily spin off into an out-of-control essay on how I perceive horror relates to weird fiction, fabulism, and other genres, but I shall refrain and get back to the question you asked about the novel.
Very specifically, in the context of the novel, this manifested to me “giving myself permission” to do two things with the story. The first was the portrayal of violence. In most, if not all of my previous stories the violence happened “off stage.” I guess my reasons for this could be another huge essay. Without spoilers there is one scene in the novel, while not overtly gory or graphic, the cameras keep rolling and “cut” is not yelled when the violence happens. I think violence and gore are sometimes so closely associated with horror stories that it is almost a hallmark of the genre or of certain sub-genres. In general, quiet horror and stories without graphic depictions are my preference and default instinct, as well as being perhaps a hallmark of literary horror. Allowing myself to include a scene of violence was a conscious and different approach for me.
The second item is structure, specifically the ending. As I read more and more in genre and read classic horror stories I learned that structurally some horror stories had endings or stopping points that might have been places where I would have instinctively started my stories. I knew from the start where I wanted the story to end and wrote towards it. Organically the end of The Serpent’s Shadow is what I would call one of these classic structures or stopping points. At first there was a voice in my head that said that stopping the story at that point was unacceptable and the consequences of using that point as a lens to view and think about the story was unacceptable. And perhaps it might be if thinking about the story in terms of other genres or non-genre. Learning about horror and thinking about it from a structural perspective gave me the confidence to keep the ending.
HN: Although The Serpent’s Shadow uncoils itself in surprising ways, there are hints and visions seeded throughout. Think of this as your opportunity to impart to our readers a premonition – can you give us a brief excerpt that would serve as a good representation? It could be something to whet their appetites, entice them, or just show off your chops.
DB: I’d be happy to.
The story starts out with an innocent attraction between teenaged David and Ann Marie, who meet during some trouble making and antics young people get into while on vacation and away from parents…
“I waved to Ann Marie and she made like she was holding a camera with her fingers and pretended to take my picture. Neither of us had a camera, but it did not matter.”
Here are two excerpts from two different people from the Yucatan that David and Anne Marie encounter that show two different opinions on the direction their world is going…
“Listen and I will tell you the story of our history. The Spanish came to take from us. The Mexican Government came to take from us. Everyone takes from the Mayan people. They kill us. They kill each other. For treasure… our true treasure. This land. This beautiful land.”
But not everyone is opposed to the hotel district and the tourism industry.
“My father worked in the chicle fields,” he said. “All day. I thought I would grow up and do that too. Now the plantations are all gone. I am glad for Cancun,” he said. His words sounded defiant and a little like a confession.”
Soon David and Ann Marie release there is more going on than meets the eye. They wonder just what the connection is to the killer, the White Lady, who the local people call Saint Death.
“I dreamt we were wrapped in xtabentun vines; vines that had crept along the stones and bound us together, their white flowers open to the night. I rolled over. Light was ready to return to the sky. I reach for her. My hand felt sand. She wasn’t next to me. I sat up and saw her walking out of the ruin…”It’s time,” she said.
David and Ann Marie experience far more than they expected on their first excursion into the jungle with local tour guide, Ramon…
“I looked to the sky and listened to the breeze rustle the tree tops, to the insects and birds, and the sounds of the people on the stairs shuffling in place. I had been sure something was going to happen when we all linked hands. But nothing had happened.
A little pop resounded from inside the temple, barely audible above the everyday noises. I felt it more than heard it. I thought someone had opened champagne or something vacuum sealed. I listened for it again and heard a faint hiss like air escaping a tire. Then Ramon screamed.
The guy holding my hand squeezed tight. The chain of people tugged and we all lurched toward the rectangular door.
Ramon yelled in excitement. A horrible smile spread on the face of the woman next to Anne Marie.
My arms spasmed. I felt a shock in my right hand. The jolt shot through me and out my left hand. As quickly as it had come it the sensation had gone. I stood there trying to recall the feeling in my body but only an echo remained. I wondered if I had really felt anything other than charlie-horse from standing with my arms up.
The hiss grew louder then abruptly stopped. Ramon let out a tortured cry; all trace of his excitement, gone.
The woman standing just outside the temple stumbled backward and fell, pulling the person inside down with her. The woman next to her tried to keep a hold on her hand but she fell too and their hands came apart. The line shifted. Everyone lost their hand holds.
Ramon stepped outside the temple entrance, his form and flailing arms a green blur only visible for a flash before he stumbled back into the dark. All along the chain, people were letting go of each other and breaking their silence. The sound of their tense conversations joined the din of the jungle.
Ramon stumbled out of the temple again. A big green snake had its jaws clamped over the bottom of his face and his neck. Its long body floated in the air next to him in defiance of gravity. It looked like one of those tree boas but all grown up and thick as my leg. Ramon swatted at it and stumbled in circles.
Feathered wings unfolded from the snake’s back with a whoosh. They were red, red as Ramon’s headdress. With each undulation of the snake’s body the wings grew a little larger; yellow, then blue feathers appeared among the red as they opened. One summer Dad showed me a butterfly crawl out of a cocoon and pump blood into its new wings; this was like that only it was happening much, much faster.
People were screaming. In the corner of my eye I saw Anne Marie crawling into the temple. I knew something horrible was happening but I couldn’t look away. The way the snake moved, the way its body cut the air was of profound importance that was eclipsing all other thoughts. Looking at it filled me with calm. Despite the erupting chaos all I wanted to do was watch its green scales catch the sunlight.
The two women who had fallen crawled to their knees and bowed their heads in prayer. Another woman spun with Ramon ignoring his muffled cries as she tried to dance with him. The snake whipped its body and knocked into her. She lost her balance and stumbled backwards over the edge of the pyramid.
Ramon’s hands found the snake’s head and tried to pry it off his face. A rivulet of blood ran down his neck, a red-gray streak in the sweat and green paint. As he struggled to free himself the snake’s wings extended fully. The symmetrical arc of bright red and yellow and blue feathers began to vibrate then became a grayish-purple blur that buzzed and clicked like the flying fish we had seen this morning. The snake rose higher. Ramon’s feet lifted off the pyramid top. The whirs and clicks intensified as the snake struggled for altitude. Then it opened its mouth and let Ramon drop. He fell to his knees, clutched his face, and flailed his other arm blindly.
The thing hovered above him with its head facing me. I didn’t get the sense it was seeing me or could even see at all. Its eyes were solid black and struck me as something that belonged to a deep sea creature or something that lived in the dark.
Ramon let out a sob and cried, “Why?”
The snake lunged at him and he rolled to avoid it. It snapped at the space where he had been a second ago. Then it snapped at the air wildly. The inside of its mouth was black. Unnaturally black. The black of space, I thought. The black space between the stars. A loud hiss was coming from its open maw. Something about the horrible sound brought my wits back to me and I backed up and lowered myself onto the first step of the pyramid. I wanted to run for cover but found I still could not look away.
The snake flew in small circles above Ramon, gracefully moving through the air like a fish through water. Tendrils of black smoke trailed in its wake. The smoke was wafting from its body and floated sideways, not up like smoke should.
The hiss grew louder. Patches of skin on the snake’s back were turning black. It twirled and corkscrewed and rose higher. Black patches on its belly were crackling and bubbling. I thought it was burning but there wasn’t any fire, only the black eating away at it and the thick smoke that lingered too long in the air. A long piece of skin starting at its head peeled away and fell off exposing muscle and bone. The two women who had been praying sprung to their feet and tried to catch it. They leapt into the air reaching for the snake, ignoring its lunges in their direction, but only captured handfuls of emptiness.
Skin fell off its head and tail and back but it continued snapping and lunging even though its bones and half its skull were exposed. With a mighty heave it thrust itself skyward but its buzzing wings went still and it stopped rising. Feathers crumbled to dust. Black patches spread over the last bits of green scales. It jerked and rolled as it fell, a withered black shape against the sky; then it was only black dust raining down on the pyramid coating Ramon and the worshippers and me.
I carefully stood and approached the temple to find Anne Marie. Ramon looked up at me as I passed him. His face was marred with gashes. Tears and blood were running down his face. I’d never seen such a deflated, defeated look before in my entire life. The man was weeping. Everything about him screamed confusion and pain.
I felt eyes on me. Anne Marie was standing in the rectangular opening to the temple, watching, cool as could be; Ramon’s loose-leaf binder tucked in the crook of her arm. The two Mayan women were looking past Ramon and I to her. Framed in the square doorway she looked magnificent and regal. She was just Anne Marie in her hiking clothes but she surveyed the chaos with such poise. Standing there like that it wasn’t hard to imagine her as an image from one of those stelae come to life.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” Ramon said in between deep, heaving sobs. “I did everything right.”
The women looked to him then back to Anne Marie; their eyes open wide and fixed on her.
“Santa Muerte te llama,” Anne Marie whispered.
Saint Death calls you.
She had spoken so softly. So quickly. I wondered if she had even said it at all.
HN: One of the balancing acts that you pull off is drawing on Mayan beliefs and the way that Cancun’s local population deal with the increase in tourism development, but without tripping into appropriation. One of the ways this works is by making the protagonist an outsider who can sense the deeper aspects around him, but also realizes his inability to grasp the entirety of what’s going on. In a way, this parallels the way that the mythological constructs in the story also approximate the underlying mystery of the great apocalyptic Other, but also fail to fully realize it. What were some of the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that using this setting presented?
DB: I think a challenge to using a setting that is so closely a part of a theme and real world issue is the danger of being heavy handed with elements you want to be in the story or that you want a reader to come away from your story with. One of my teachers, Tim Powers, goes as far to say that he never thinks about theme when drafting and trusts that a theme will present itself and come out. With this story I did not fully follow Tim Powers advice. You hit on the method I used, character choice. To fully tell this story of the direction of the Yucatan, fully realized and depicted characters on both sides of the development issue had to be present. This organically showed what the two sides were all about, and what specific consequences, good and bad, were for each. I think it makes for richer conflict and a richer story that way.
One of the opportunities in writing a story like this is that it also operates as historical fiction. The Yucatan and Cancun and the “Mayan Riveria” as they were in 1986 is no longer. Much of the jungle depicted in this story is no more. In its place are towns, small cities, and luxury hotels. One of the sides presented in this story has won in the real world. Is this good or bad? The answer depends on who you are, what you want, what you need, and what you seek. The challenge and opportunity was to portray the sense of this tipping point or turning point in a story that not only offered the opportunity to think about this, but first and foremost entertained.
A challenge is to present a story where readers think they know where the story is going but to have it turn out that they are wrong. To pleasantly surprise them. It is a big challenge is to deliver that. Something that feels familiar yet fresh and unexpected.
HN: Without getting into spoilers, one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Serpent’s Shadow is how it gradually uncoils from a relatively light-hearted and even romantic holiday vacation to … well, something much more dramatic. The pacing through this journey is fantastic, as it hints at the tension even as the momentum builds until there’s no way for our protagonist (or anyone else!) to turn back. How did you achieve this kind of effect? Was this build up something that came out of pre-planning, editing, or just in the moment?
DB: The build and pace are a product of all three. I’m mostly a pre-planner when it comes to writing.
I delight in slow-build stories with foreshadow and stories with layers. The slow build was a great joy to think about and to write. I had a skeleton or the structure already thought out when I sat down to write, so the build and foreshadow were planned.
The next part of drafting came “in the moment” as you say. I wrote the story over a period of months, day by day. Getting to points I had in mind and getting in and out of scenes to best dramatize them. Filing in of the structural pre-planned points. These were the parts and aspects of the story that were not predetermined and came on a day to day, line by line, scene by scene basis not only holding the story together but keeping it feeling right.
The third point is the editing. Editing is so important to me. And where I feel the story really comes together, for me. I love the editing part most. I go back and edit both when daily writing and big picture full read edits after and as drafts are completed. I had the benefit of working with editor Norman Prentiss. Very lucky and grateful to Norman for acquiring the project and for making the story the best it could be with great editing advice. I learned a ton from working with him and learned so much about horror.
HN: Who do you view as your creative influences and do you see traces of them in this book? Are there any other creators that you consider particularly important in your work, but that readers might be surprised to find out about?
DB: Tanith Lee and Lucius Shepard are two authors I read as a teenager and continue to be my favorites. More recent influences are Kelly Link and Robert Aickman. One overt similarity with Lucius Shepard is the Central American setting. My favorite short story of all time is “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard and I think it influences me both consciously and subconsciously.
One of the things that inspires me about Tanith Lee is that her stories often depict supernatural encounters with consequences. She depicts this with a subtle and steady hand in her short story “Because Their Skins are Finer.” While I do not see a direct line, it is hard for me to imagine that the origin of my liking for magic and the supernatural with consequences started with this story. Both of these stories and authors are of tremendous importance to me.
Mentions of Kelly Link and Robert Aickman sometimes come as a surprise because both are not as well known in the horror community. It is wonderful to see both these authors increasing in popularity. Kelly Link’s stories are known for and are masterful examples of so many things; at the moment I am thinking of her characters and dialog, she delivers depictions of people that, feel absolutely, un-erringly real. When you have that I think you, as a writer, can do anything and venture into any territory and keep the reader right there with you. A fine example of this is the short story “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” While there is a lot of humor and great character interactions happening in the story I find it to be one of my favorite pieces of weird fiction with the speculative element handled with such a steady, subltle hand.
Aickman’s characters are vastly different than Link but they share that same weight and feeling absolutely real and beleivability as Link’s do. Grounded in the depictions of his characters and settings, Aickman’s stories have support for the weight of strange things and ambiguities that populate his stories. Particularly in my short fiction, this aspect of Link and Aickman is a huge inspiration.
HN: Although we’re talking about your novel today, you’re also an experienced short story writer and an editor, to boot. What was it like making the transition from shorter fiction to the novel? I’m always curious if newly-minted novelists chose to pursue the novel as a “next step” on the writing path writer, or if it was just that this particular story demanded novel-length?
DB: This was a story that demanded novel length. Early on in my creative process I tried the idea as a flash fiction. I very quickly realized the idea was one that required much-bigger word count to tell it the way I envisioned it.
For me, the appearance of a transition is just an artifact of bringing stories to the market. As a writer I was trained early on to let the story be the length it needs to be. Of course the practical implication of following this unmitigated is that long stories often rules you out from markets. And that novel-length stories require an exponential amount of time for all parts of the creative and professional process. When I was first starting out I did not pursue longer story ideas when choosing what to write, as I was eager to be published. Plus I love writing short stories. I will always be a short story writer as I love, love, love the form. I see myself as a storyteller, a writer. Part of my process is sorting my ideas, or attempting to, to fit formats and sometimes even projects. Novels are much more of an investment in time and effort and much more time and energy to publish. While I have several novels completed and in various stages of the publishing journey, I do not see myself or those projects as a next step, merely a different step.
Some ideas I think work better at different lengths. A good example of this is the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” and the novel Swamplandia by Karen Russell. Both are excellent; however, I think the idea (which is the same in both) is much more effective in the short story. I can’t help but think that there was pressure to deliver a novel from Russell’s publisher, but publishing is a business and this leads to an entirely different conversation.
HN: In addition to writing, you also host the twice-yearly reading and interview series Night Time Logic. How did this get started? What sort of difference in the reading and interview experience do you find in the live format vs. the words on the page? Have you ever found that hearing an author read or discussing with them afterwards has changed your perception of their work?
DB: I started Night Time Logic in 2015. New York is the last place that needed another reading series; there are often two, sometimes three readings that I want to go to at any given night. My two favorites are the long-running New York Review of Science Fiction hosted by Jim Freund and Fantastic Fiction at KGB Bar hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel. I wanted to bring the interview format, which is often only found at conventions, to a reading style event and to match the events to some of the different venues New York has to offer. That’s how it got started.
The interview format is very, very different than a words-on-the-page interview, yes. I’m still new to it, so the insights and ability to readily codify and discuss what those differences are, are not online for me yet. Certainly there is an energy and feeling present in person that can not be achieved with words on the page.
I love hearing author readings. Yes, hearing authors read out loud can make a big difference. A wonderful experience is encountering a writer for the first time by hearing them read out loud. I heard Jeff Ford read back in 2002 before I had read a word of his fiction. Jeff was my most recent guest. Jeff’s answers and his creative process were so different than my pre-conceived notions of where the interview might go. He is such a talent and a delight to talk with and listen to it wound up being a very different interview but a successful one that the audience reported enjoying.
One of my favorite interviews was with Peter Straub. I had an idea of what ground we wanted to cover and I asked Peter and I did a lot of reading and preparing in advance. Peter is such a professional so, so sharp and talented. I think he is just a genius-level intellect who has a wonderful heart and perspective and love of writing. We covered his editing and his insights into fabulism, in addition to some of the personal aspects in his work. I have these recorded and on my list to find a home where the public will be able to hear them. Since I am a one-man show these things take time.
I approach my interviews with a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder. I always seem to have more questions than time. The key is being fortunate enough to have outstanding guests who are so talented and interesting.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to any scheduled releases and events, what sort of apocalyptic visions are just starting to take shape?
DB: Next up for me is Necronomicon 2019. I’m not sure when this interview will be out but I am writing it the week prior. I hope to meet you there.
My most recent short story publications are the short story “Above the Buried City,” which appears in the recently released Shivers 7 anthology from Cemetery Dance, and the short story “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning,” which appears in the recently released Pareidolia anthology from Black Shuck Books.
In October 2019 Lethe Press is releasing an anthology I edited titled Spirits Unwrapped. The book features “mummy” stories from around the world and has tales from outstanding new writers such as Inna Efress and Casilda Ferrante to multiple award-winning authors John Crowley and Karen Joy Fowler.
Looking ahead to 2020, my third short story collection is coming from Lethe Press. I look forward to sharing all those details soon!
DANIEL BRAUM is the New York-based author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance E books 2016), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017), and the chapbook Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016). His third collection is forthcoming from Lethe Press. The Serpent’s Shadow is his first novel. He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology from Lethe Press (forthcoming October 2019) and the host and founder of the Night Time Logic reading series in New York City. He can be found at www.facebook.com/DanielBraumFiction and https://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com.