Hellnotes: First of all, congratulations on your newest novel The Isle (Grey Matter Press)! For our readers who haven’t yet had the chance to pick it up or read our separate review, let’s ease them into the water: could you start by telling us what The Isle is about?
John C. Foster: Virgil Bone is a United States Marshal, his life and career on the skids. He’s given the unenviable task of traveling to a remote island community to retrieve the body of a federal fugitive but is trapped on the island by storms. There’s a murder and Bone find himself drawn into frightening events having to do with the dark history of this secretive community. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s safe to say he should have turned down the assignment.
HN: What was the inspiration behind this novel? In particularly, what was the impetus for setting this in coastal New England and imbuing it with such a sense of historical horror? I loved the cold and damp atmosphere, as well as touches like the dialect the locals poke in, so I was wondering where those came from.
JCF: I have to be careful about answering this so I don’t give away some key plot points, but The Isle was inspired maybe two decades ago by the original film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I was writing screenplays at the time and broke down the movie into key elements, wondering if I could craft an original story making use of those elements – the isolated location, a lone lawman, etc. – and I wrote a screenplay. It was deemed too dark to be a studio movie and I shelved it for a long time until I was in New York writing novels. I dusted off the screenplay and wrote a new story from page one that bears only superficial resemblance to the original story, and no resemblance at all to the Agatha Christie story, but that’s how it all started.
As for the atmosphere…I grew up in New England and when I placed the story there, I set about capturing the essence of the place, treating the Isle as if it were a character. A sense of history is woven into everything in New England and is as much a part of the culture as the harsh winters. In the same way that you “love” villains when you write them, I tried to write a love story to those dark, gothic, and threatening aspects of New England.
HN: Along those lines, one particular aspect that has stayed with me are the wonderfully evocative names of the characters. Beyond our hero with the portentous name of Virgil Bone, the titular Isle is populated by the likes of Hazel Milk, Burden Ipswich, Increase Mather, Hatevil Nutter, and too many others to list here. I noted that The Isle is dedicated to Duane Jones, who apparently “gave [you] the names.” Could you tell us a bit about that and the process of populating this novel? Also, do you have a particular favorite name?
JCF: My favorite name in the entire book is Hatevil Nutter, which I lifted from an old genealogy book belonging to Duane and Carol Jones, parents of my partner, Linda. They were enthusiastic amateur genealogists with family roots in New England and had a wealth of material on which I could draw. They had one ancestor from Marblehead, Massachusetts who was accused of blasphemy and had a hole burned in his tongue! Though they were absolutely forbidden to read my books, they were both a big help and after Duane passed away, I wanted to publicly acknowledge his participation.
So…names. There really was a guy with the name Hatevil Nutter! It fascinated me to think about a society where a name like that could seem normal and what influences were applying pressure to the people trapped within it. Although the community on the island exists in the present day, it is very old and has not progressed at the same pace as the wider world, so I drew parallels with Hawthorne via the names to reinforce at every turn what kind of place we were in and the ever present threat represented by stunted puritanical thinking.
HN: Readers might think of your style as something akin to a “hard-boiled horror,” if I can allow myself a moment to be reductive. There are tropes like the disgraced lawman looking for redemption that come from noir fiction, while the isolated village, ghastly murders, creepy crawly critters, and, well, just about everything else, have clear horror elements. What are your particular influences on this style, both in your general work and particularly in this novel? When you’re blending and remixing these influences, is it a conscious process or are you so steeped in both that the melange occurs naturally?
JCF: I have trouble coloring inside the lines, so a blend of genres comes naturally to me, particularly a tendency to infuse everything with noir. I’m fascinated with the idea of people on a downward spiral, maybe even over the edge into being what we might think of as bad people, who encounter a turning point where they can make a choice to set some small part of the world on the right path, even if it costs them tremendously. I’m steeped in the old guys like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Ross McDonald as well as loving writers like Andrew Vachss, Gillian Flynn, and Megan Abbott, so noir and crime flows in my veins. At the same time, it was important that this story be very much a New England story, so I aimed my pen towards the themes and tropes that exemplify the region in my mind, particularly as they relate to horror. My influences in horror are all over the place, from King to Ramsey Campbell to Shirley Jackson, but I think that in addition to really channeling my own knowledge of the region – the smell of the ocean, the feel of cold digging right through my coat – I drew on classic ghost stories for inspiration. M.R. James, Susan Hill, Algernon Blackwood. And then, because I can’t color between the lines, things got weird when we went gallivanting through the island’s subterranean spaces. Brushstrokes of Lovecraft and Ligotti were added to the composition.
HN: Along those lines, I don’t know if I would call this book “pulp,” but it has that sort of feeling because it’s very much plot- and voice-driven. However, you also do spend time fleshing out the tragedy of protagonist Bone’s life and the histories of certain of the island’s inhabitants. How do you balance these elements when working? The Isle has a rapid-fire pace, structured with quick cuts between scenes and POV characters in a way that keeps things rolling. How do you approach balancing interiority with external events?
JCF: I think my pacing comes from a screenwriting background, where the writer has very few pages to move the story forward. Because this story is less kinetic than a novel like Mister White or Dead Men, which are chase stories, I kept up momentum with the POV shifts you mentioned. This also gave me an ability to expose more of the people and culture of the Isle without resorting to exposition. But for all of the atmosphere and setting and generational struggle taking place, the story all centers on one man, Bone, who meets a turning point like the one I mentioned above. In fact, there’s one clear moment when the turning point is illustrated in stark terms – a mob demands he turn someone over to them and he refuses, knowing the consequences will be dire. But to have that moment mean something, I had to earn it. That meant digging deep into what sent Bone on his downward spiral in the first place. Thrills and action have no impact unless they carry emotional resonance and I hope everything resonates in this story.
HN: Is the world of The Isle one that you see future work returning to? In one sense, the ending leaves open the possibility of a return to the island, but readers could certainly understand why those left at the end would be perfectly happy never to return. Is there still more you’d like to do with this setting—either forwards or backwards in time—or have you eaten your fill for now?
JCF: We’ll see.
HN: What is it with all the creepy crustaceans in The Isle, anyway? Huh? Is the climactic sequence involving escape from an underground cavern filled with monstrous lobsters and the subsequent rebellion against an oppressive patriarchy a subtle critique against Jordan Peterson’s use of lobsters to argue in support of hierarchies, or are lobsters just scary?
JCF: Is there anything more synonymous with New England and Maine than the lobster? Gloucester, Massachusetts actually erected a town Christmas tree made out of lobster traps this year. My family vacationed on Cape Cod when I was little and I used to play with fiddler crabs (I tried to make armies but they would just scatter and do their own thing) and catch blue crabs with nets by wading in the marshy rivers…and the worst were some other kind of devil crab that would bite my feet if I stepped on one out in the surf. Besides, crabs and lobsters are so damned weird, there’s something inherently off putting about them, even though they are delicious. While I wish there was a reason as deeply intellectual as an argument against Jordan Peterson, I went with lobsters because they’re just kind of scary.
HN: What other authors out there are doing work that you enjoy or find inspirational? Since your work blends the marrow of different genres, are there are other contemporary authors that you think are doing good work in that vein?
JCF: My biggest discovery in 2018 was the brilliant Megan Abbott and I’ve read three of her novels already, two contemporary thrillers and one of her classic noirs. She’s amazing. I will be reading the new novel from Gabino Iglesias soon, Coyote Songs – he blends horror and crime into a barrio noir style that is as unique as it is compelling. I’ve been clawing my way through Nadia Bulkin’s first collection of short stories and she offers another unique voice. Each story can be classified as speculative fiction, but they range from horror to sci-fi to simply strange, many of them dealing with the politics of colonialism. Laird Barron has often blended crime and horror fiction with his own unique take on the weird, but this year he delivered his first straight up crime novel, Blood Standard, and it was as hard hitting and excellent as one might expect.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up next on your horizon? Beyond your concrete plans and projects, are there any tantalizing new nightmares that are beginning to swirl around?
JCF: I have a crime thriller written and two other novels – one horror, one straight suspense – that are in draft stages. At the time of this interview, I’m finishing a horror novella in response to an invitation, but I can’t go into more detail yet. There’s a lot on the horizon, but it will have to remain shrouded in mystery for the moment.
John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. His newest novel The Isle grew out of his love for New England, where he spent his childhood. He is the author of three previous novels, Dead Men, Night Roads, and Mister White, and one collection of short stories, Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances. His stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Dark Moon Digest, Strange Aeons, Dark Visions Volume 2, and Lost Films, among others. He lives in Brooklyn with the actress Linda Jones and their dog Coraline. For more information, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com.