Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Guest Post: This Isn't Your Grandfather's Horror Story – And More's the Pity

Since 1997, ChiZine Publications has been publishing some of the best in dark, speculative fiction.  Their newest title is a little jewel called Rasputin’s Bastards by David Nickle.  Here’s what Amazon has to say about it.
They were the beautiful dreamers. From a hidden city deep in the Ural mountains, they walked the world as the coldest of Cold Warriors, under the command of the Kremlin and under the power of their own expansive minds. They slipped into the minds of Russia's enemies with diabolical ease, and drove their human puppets to murder, and worse. They moved as Gods. And as Gods, they might have remade the world. But like the mad holy man Rasputin, who destroyed Russia through his own powerful influence?.?.?. in the end, the psychic spies for the Motherland were only in it for themselves. 
It is the 1990s. The Cold War is long finished. In a remote Labrador fishing village, an old woman known only as Babushka foresees her ending through the harbour ice, in the giant eye of a dying kraken– and vows to have none of it. Beaten insensible and cast adrift in a life raft, ex-KGB agent Alexei Kilodovich is dragged to the deck of a ship full of criminals, and with them he will embark on a journey that will change everything he knows about himself. And from a suite in an unseen hotel in the heart of Manhattan, an old warrior named Kolyokov sets out with an open heart, to gather together the youngest members of his immense, and immensely talented, family. They are more beautiful, and more terrible, than any who came before them. They are Rasputin's bastards. And they will remake the world.
Mmm—makes me all tingly just reading it.  But why?  I mean, it sounds immensely effing cool (and if you don’t agree then… why are you still reading?), but what about it makes it so… tingly?  Me personally, I think it has something to do with the mixing of genres:  specifically, horror and history.  It’s a perfect minotaur of gruesome goodness, and it’s one that has resonated with readers in recent years.  I mean, just look at Dan Simmons’ The Terror or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Talk about success, right?

So as part of the Rasputin’s Bastards blog tour, I asked David if he could give us his take on it—if he could tell us why historical horror is so much damn fun.  Well he agreed, and he’s here now.  So without further adieu, take it away David!


Here is a thought experiment.

You're creeping about in a big dark house, all by yourself, late at night, in the middle of Kansas. You're pretty sure that there's someone else in there, although you've not seen them; just heard a scratching noise in the wall, some whispering behind you. Something keeps moving out of the corner of your eye, but you can't be sure what. You feel a nameless dread descend upon you.

What do you do?

Well one thing you'd do these days is turn on my smart phone, call 911 for help, and use the camera to snap anything that you did manage to see, uploading it immediately to Facebook so that your friends would know where to look and be forewarned about the big guy with all the tentacles. You may even Google the phenomenon, and find out immediately that the big guy with all the tentacles was an Ancient Horror who had done this very same thing over in a suburb of St. Louis back in 2009 and there, they'd taken it out with simple clumping cat litter and a spritzer bottle filled with vinegar. And because of the effects of urban sprawl, it would be more than likely that great big house would be an over-mortgaged McMansion in a suburb of its own; so you might just run outside and bang on the door of the neighbours. You'd sure go around and turn on all the lights.

If all this were happening in 1932, in dustbowl Kansas, you'd be faced with a very different set of problems. Odds would be good that the big old house would be on a farm, or a scratch of land more rural and isolated than anything you can come up with these days. If anything happened in St. Louis back in 1929, well, you sure wouldn't be able to find out the particulars of it while Cthulhu was chasing you around the cellar. You wouldn't be able to tell anyone about what was happening, either. If there was a phone in the place, it would be unreliable, in one hard-to-get-to room, and probably need to be cranked in such a noisy way as to alert every Ancient Horror in a two mile radius. And in those days, not everyone had electricity. So you'd probably be in the dark.

Given that, it's no surprise that horror novels set in the past are such big hits these days—running the gamut from dead-serious (Dan Simmons' The Terror) to over-the-top funny (Seth Graham-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). It's certainly possible to terrify in the brightly-lit 21st century. It's just so much easier to do so credibly when your characters have fewer tools.

And as a writer, it can be a lot more fun.

In my first novel, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, I set the wheels in motion almost exactly a hundred years ago, in 1911. That novel is about the early American eugenics movement—a real-world horror if ever there was one. I probably could have wrung a mainstream novel out of the subject matter, in the same way that Dan Simmons could have written a terrifying novel about the Franklin Expedition without any monsters but the human ones.

It might even be a little bit fun. But when you combine the privations and limitations of real life with the thing lurking in the dark—the thing that, let's be honest, many people believed to be there in the days before electricity and the internet... it takes us all back.

For let us not forget, while many of the great horror novels of history were contemporary as they were written, now they are period pieces. Bram Stoker's Dracula is as much about Victorian England and its relationship with the Continent as it is about blood-sucking undead. And even Stephen King's Salem's Lot is as much about small-town life in 1970s America as it is about vampirism.

Is it possible, then, that historical horror fiction written these days is merely an exercise in nostalgia? An attempt to replay the tropes of our forefathers—Stoker, King, Matheson—in the very context in which they wrote?

Not necessarily. Michael Rowe's excellent vampire novel from last year, Enter, Night, is set in a time contemporary to Salem's Lot, but in a northern Ontario mining town. While there are vampires, and they are terrifying, the novel takes on themes that are informed very much by a contemporary perspective: in particular, small-town homophobia, and the treatment of aboriginal people in church-run residential schools. Enter, Night could not have been written in 1975, any more than Simmons' doorstopper or Smith's sly bit of iron could have been written in the years they occurred.

On the other hand, sometimes they can. My new novel, Rasputin's Bastards, imagines powerful psychics at work in the Great Game of the Cold War. While the book takes place over the breadth of the Cold War, spending time in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, British-held Hong Kong and a New York City with an intact World Trade Centre, it was mostly written and entirely conceived when the main action takes place: in the late 1990s.

David Nickle
In that case, it was my judgement that a book of Rasputin's Bastards nature was rendered irrelevant by the very contemporary events of September 11, 2001. The world had turned away from the Cold War, and fixed its eye firmly on the War on Terror. Rasputin's Bastards had been rendered entirely historical by events—and those events needed to fade a bit into history before I could finish and publish this book without it crossing the line back from historical to merely 'dated.'

I think it's improved by the historical perspective now, though. Writing the same story taking place today would be a very different game. Never mind that the timelines would be skewed, but these omnipotent psychics would be dealing with iPads and smart phones, consumer-level GPS's and a level of surveillance that would make mere mind-reading obsolete.

As it turns out, even in the 1990s, the world was a little darker and more mysterious than it is today.


Biography - David Nickle is the author of more than 30 short stories, 13 of which have been gathered in the collection Monstrous Affections. He is author of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, and co-author of The Claus Effect, with Karl Schroeder. Years ago, he and Karl won an Aurora Award for the short story that inspired that novel, "The Toy Mill." Some years later, he won a Bram Stoker Award for short fiction, for a story called "Rat Food" - co-written with Edo Van Belkom. He lives in Toronto, Canada. His website, The Devil's Exercise Yard has stories on it for free.


  1. Great stuff so glad you're taking part in the tour and I myself am looking forward to having David on in a couple days. I love horror because it evokes something primal in us all. A universal feeling that goes back to the primitive in us.

  2. He makes excellent points. I agree with him 100%. I suspect our children's generation will write excellent horror about the world of 2012.

  3. Historical horror sounds like a creepy genre that I must discover.

  4. I agree with him. Unless people don't have any tools, the big guy with all the tentacles should be the scared one today. Scary ancient creature defeated by modern technology.

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