David Nickle is an award-winning author and editor, perhaps best known to Hellnotes readers for his work in dark speculative fiction. His newest novel, Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination (ChiZine, 2017) was released last month, continuing the story of a psycho-parasitic monster known as the Juke and those humans that seek to destroy it … or to use it for their nefarious ends. David was kind enough to talk to us about Volk, the joys and difficulties of working within a historical setting, and where all these ideas come from (apparently not from parasitic creatures, or at least not that he’ll admit).
HELLNOTES: Thanks for talking to us about your newest novel, Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination (ChiZine, 2017). Let’s start at the beginning, or in this case, before the beginning: Volk is a sequel to your 2016 novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism. Both of these novels deal with characters that encounter a mysterious creature called the Juke – a parasitic organism that hijacks people’s perception of reality and their belief systems in order to propagate its species. What was the genesis of this idea, and what did you originally want to explore in these novels?
DAVID NICKLE: The idea for the Juke goes back more than a decade. Hard to say exactly where it started, but the notion definitely grew out of ongoing conversations I was having with my science fiction friends – notably, Peter Watts, during our early-morning-long-haul-running phase. Peter was working on his novel Blindsight, thinking a lot about the nature of consciousness, and talking about it too… and I got to thinking about the nature of the soul, and transcendence through that neurological lens. And I wondered, then, about the way that certain parasites dine out by effectively motivating their hosts, to what might seem like virtuous, or at least generous behaviour.
But of course the parasitical Juke is just a part of it. I was also interested in eugenics—and the way that in the early days of the pseudoscience, people who imagined themselves virtuous and generous created this really monstrous construct to justify, well, abominations.
What I wanted to do ultimately was write a horror novel about good intentions – and ultimately, about goodness itself.
HN: One of my real joys in reading both novels was piecing together what had happened to the characters and how their relationships had changed in the intervening twenty-year period between the end of Eutopia and the beginning of Volk. Although I would recommend reading both, do you think readers could come to Volk as a standalone book? Had you always intended to write a sequel to Eutopia?
DN: I hope that Volk can be read on its own – I took some care to make sure there was enough information in the early chapters that someone could pick up the book and not be entirely at sea. And at least one reviewer did read the book on its own, and pronounced it comprehensible. But I really hope that people will follow your example and read both books.
That said, I hadn’t originally planned to write a sequel to Eutopia; I felt that as a horror novel, it stood on its own. But as it aged on the shelf, it dawned on me that it wasn’t just a horror novel; it was a science fiction novel too, and as a science fiction novel it was incomplete. Which is to say, there were philosophical and biological implications that were raised in Eutopia that I needed to explore.
So finally, I decided I’d better finish the job.
HN: As mentioned above, Volk picks up twenty years after the end of Eutopia, skipping ahead from 1911 to 1931, but also changing continents – leaping from the eugenicist community of Eliada, ID, USA to continental Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. It’s a bold jump, so what exactly was it about this shift in time and place that attracted you?
DN: It felt logical. Even when I wasn’t planning on a sequel, it made sense to me that any follow-up on a novel that concerned itself with eugenics would end up in Germany. I was also generally interested in the rise of Nazism in Germany – less so than the actual manifestation of it. Although I started writing Volk long before Donald Trump came to power, I like many of us was tracking frightening parallels between the zeitgeist in Germany in the 1930s and that in North America in the 21st century.
I also wanted to continue to explore the experience of PTSD, as it manifests in the individual and blossoms into a culture. That theme emerged in Eutopia; Jason Thistledown begins that novel as the survivor of a devastating plague; Andrew Waggoner, the survivor of a lynching. The subsequent events in the isolated experimental town of Eliada layered on an even deeper trauma, to everyone who walked – or limped – away from it. So any sequel involving these characters was going to have to address that. The inter-war period in Europe, with Germany processing its own shaming defeat and a generation of men dealing with the horrors of the Great War, seemed a perfect setting.
HN: In making that shift, what kind of research was necessary to bring that world to life? What part of rendering this place and time did you find the most exciting, and what part was the most challenging?
DN: The whole thing was pretty daunting, to be honest – really because there is so much information available about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and I didn’t come to the project with any particular expertise. And I was aware that there was a lot of material and a lot of expertise among my potential readers that could trip me up if I got anything wrong.
So I read books; viewed documentaries; and mined my friends and colleagues for their particular knowledge. Michael Skeet, who writes brilliant historical fantasy, helped me with early 20th-century aviation lore and establishing the details of Jason’s World War I service. Peter Watts stepped up again and helped me to work out some of the cryptobiology of the Juke, and also extrapolate some period-appropriate methodology for studying that cryptobiology. My wife, Madeline Ashby, had in fact done some in-depth work in university on the Holocaust (which doesn’t figure in Volk) and the rise of Nazism (which does), and talked me through countless details.
I also immersed myself in Weimar cultural products, from expressionist films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to salon jazz and literary memoirs. That was some of the most exciting and really playful element of the research; getting into the cultural headspace of Weimar Germany. Once the groundwork was laid, that was what let me imaginatively inhabit the world, and to the extent that I’ve succeeded, bring it to life.
HN: One of the aspects of Volk’s structure that I particularly enjoyed was the heroes’ use of what they refer to as “The Decameron System.” A reference to Boccaccio’s famous book, in which a group of people tell each other stories while waiting out the Black Death, Volk’s heroes use it as a way to test their memories – they tell their stories and are questioned by the others, the idea being that the pressure will help them see through the Juke’s illusions. While there is a section in the book (aptly named “The Decameron System”) in which the protagonists fill each other in on past events through dialogue, what was it that made you choose this method to tell those parts of the story, rather than direct narrative presentation? Should readers adopt this method, too, and look for ways that Volk recontextualizes events and experiences from Eutopia in order to piece together the “truth” of that story?
DN: One of the problems I wrestled with in writing Eutopia was how to properly depict the hallucinations that the Juke inspires, at the same time as I was depicting the agency of the characters experiencing those hallucinations. My solution was to craft those scenes and that story in a dream-like, almost surrealistic way… a bit reminiscent of the way that Lovecraft would describe encounters with the elder gods of his mythos. But it became clear to me that as Jason and Andrew and Ruth and Annie moved farther away from that experience, they would need some method to contextualize it and deal with the moment. Effectively, just like any damaged Lovecraft protagonist, what they needed was psychotherapy. And one way to look at psychotherapy is as a process for establishing a truthful and healthy narrative from the jumble of a life.
That explains why the characters seize upon it. For me, it was a decision driven as much by literary playfulness as anything else. I’ve read a lot of weird fiction that takes the form of a story within a story – told at a fireside over brandy on a stormy night, with a level of detail that one would be unlikely to encounter in a real-life telling. For all that, it can be astoundingly effective. I’m thinking about John Langan’s recent work – in particular his 2016 novel The Fisherman, in which the bulk of the novel is a long, insanely detailed but riveting retelling of a local legend in a roadside diner… but there are so many others – King, Straub … Boccaccio for that matter… that play in that oral epistolary sandbox, to great effect.
I wanted to play too, and also deploy the mode into a story in which the act of telling and listening becomes an effective interrogation, both of memory and maybe of reality itself. It is a fine line, of course, between achieving that and demolishing the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Hopefully I didn’t cross it too often.
HN: While both Eutopia and Volk have the same core characters and deal with similar adversaries, readers of both might notice a shift in the genre trappings between books. Whereas Eutopia felt to me like a Western mixed with religious mystery-cum-cosmic horror, Volk feels more like a continental political spy thriller mixed with science fiction. In particular, the Juke itself moves from a quasi-mystical being (albeit with a biological basis) to more of an animal than a monster as it is further researched and drawn out into the light. Were there any particular influences that you were drawing from in these novels, particularly with regard to those genre elements?
DN: The long shadow of H.P. Lovecraft falls over both books. I began Eutopia with the idea of entering into dialogue with two of Lovecraft’s preoccupations: his xenophobia, and his cosmic-horror fuelled atheism. And I found myself drawing a lot of Lovecraftian elements into that mix as a result: the backwoods Feeger family who worshipped a Juke; the mad-science villainy of the eugenicists; and the more extreme approach to body horror. I was also interested in the Western genre elements. I’d been reading some of Joe Lansdale’s Westerns, and also enjoying the HBO series Deadwood – particularly the beautiful and profane use of language.
In terms of the genre shift in Volk, I didn’t move consciously away from any of that, but Volk definitely leaves the Western behind and for much of the text, the Lovecraftian elements shift to the background. I was surprised, in drafting it, that it became something less of a horror novel and more of an espionage novel. But both books are mongrels, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that one element or another moved to the front as the story suggested.
As to influences? I’m finding that more and more John Le Carre is a significant influence on all my writing – although more as a point of navigation than a writer whose game I can hope to match. I’ve just come off co-editing an anthology of James Bond stories with my wife, so Ian Fleming was probably top of mind as well, for a lot of elements in the book that dealt with espionage.
I was also paying a bit of homage here and there. I was thinking of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which Jason Thistledown’s post-war journey echoes to an extent. And in cinema, Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story the Quail & Ale Club is a very distant antecedent to Andrew Waggoner’s wine-sipping, Juke-hunting Society of Transcendent Biology.
HN: We’ll be careful not to spoil anything, but the end of Volk certainly seems to set the stage for a third book. Not only that, but while I read the first two books as ones that could have taken place within our real-world timeline (albeit hidden in the margins of history), I read Volk’s epilogue the as suggesting that the Eutopia/Volk timeline may have significantly diverged from ours. What are your plans regarding the future of this story?
DN: You’re right – at a point the novel’s timeline significantly diverges from that of the real world. In fact, it begins to diverge rather earlier in the novel than a lot of people might think—well before the epilogue. It might be possible to write a third novel (ChiZine’s Sandra Kasturi suggested I write a disco-era three-quel), but it would have to involve an entirely new cast of characters, because…
Well, in the interests of avoiding spoilers, just because.
HN: Finally, what’s on the horizon for David Nickle? Not just what you’re working on now or what’s coming out next, but also what ideas are you playing with that maybe haven’t been worked out yet – can you give us both something concrete and something abstract to anticipate?
DN: Immediately, I have a couple of anthology appearances coming up – one of which has been announced and is fairly imminent: “Murder on the Prurient Express,” in Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire, out from Evil Jester Press at the end of October. And there is another story, “On A Wooden Plate, On A Winter’s Night,” in an as-yet unannounced anthology that should be out in the spring of 2018.
More vaguely? I am at work on another novel. This one’s a bit of a departure for me, in that it’s not speculative. It is about sibling rivalry and bad life choices. I hope to have that one done… soon.
David Nickle is an award-winning author of several novels and numerous short stories. His short fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Cemetery Dance, The Best Horror of the Year, and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife author Madeline Ashby, and works there as a journalist covering municipal politics. His most recent novel is Volk: A Novel of Radiant Abomination.
Website: “The Devil’s Exercise Yard”: http://davidnickle.blogspot.ca