Down in the depths: (super)natural dread in new novels by Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter

March 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It might come as a surprise to hear that Andrew Pyper, one of this country’s most successful writers of literary thrillers, cites Alice Munro as an influence. Though, to think about it, the comparison should not be entirely unexpected. There is, of course, the strong and frequently acknowledged streak of so-called “Ontario gothic” in Munro’s writing, and there is no doubt that the Nobel laureate’s stories frequently engage with some pretty dark subjects and themes. But more than that, Munro is well aware of what any good writer of horror knows: to elicit emotion, it is essential to invest your reader in your characters and their situation. You have to give your readers a reason to care.

The_Damned_Andrew_PyperThis is true of all writing, of course, but it is particularly salient in the horror genre, since writers of scary or supernatural stories require suspension of disbelief on the part of readers in order to pull off their effects. “There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader,” writes Nick Cutter. “Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them.” Again, true enough across the board, but absolutely essential to the genre at hand.

Which is one reason why new novels by Pyper and Cutter are so deeply rooted in characters and their stories. Not the otherworldly terrors they fall prey to – although there are plenty of those to go around – but the dreadfully normal business of life: family, love, death, and loss.

On one level, the two writers could not be more different. Pyper has acknowledged an affinity for a quieter, more British strain of fiction that works on a reader’s psyche by increments, without resorting too effusively to overt violence or gore. Cutter, on the other hand, is something of an attack dog: his two novels (so far: there’s another one coming later this spring) assault their reader with snapping, slashing teeth and snarling aplomb. Yet there are undeniable similarities connecting the writers’ most recent offerings.

Pyper’s seventh novel, The Damned, appears two years after his previous work, The Demonologist. In addition to being the author’s most popular hit to date, The Demonologist marked a definite move into full-fledged genre territory. Pyper dipped his toe in the supernatural in his 2011 novel The Guardians, prior to which the terrors in his books were largely of this world. But with The Demonologist he dove in head first, and he continues to swim these waters in The Damned.

The new novel tells the story of twins – Danny and Ashleigh Orchard – both of whom die in a fire when they are sixteen years old. Except only one of them stays dead. Danny is revived and becomes a renowned exponent of near-death experience, writing about his encounter with heaven in a book he calls After. As a result of the book’s popularity, Danny meets other “Afterlifers” – people who have similarly died and been brought back to the mortal plane. One of these is Willa, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy named Eddie. When Danny falls in love with Willa, the restless spirit of Ash (who hates her full name and always goes by the diminutive – get it?) becomes jealous and determines to destroy the nascent relationship so as to keep her brother all to herself.

Though there is more to it than that – there are indications that Ash was murdered, and that she wants her corporal brother to investigate the crime and expose the culprit – the story is essentially a love triangle between Danny, his new flame (sorry) and his needy sister’s ghost.

Pyper’s tactic is to place Danny at the centre of the story, allowing him to carry the emotional weight. Danny acts as the novel’s first-person narrator, so everything is filtered through his eyes and his sensibility. In this way, Pyper grounds the novel’s more outré elements in a central consciousness readers can relate to: with one foot in this world and one in the next, Danny can act as a kind of tour guide to the other side, while never losing his essential connectedness to our messy physical realm.

The_Deep_Nick_CutterThis connectedness is essential in getting readers to accept the supernatural aspects of the story, which is something that Cutter exploits in The Deep, about a global pandemic called the ’Gets, the symptoms of which mimic a kind of jacked-up Alzheimer’s. The cure for the ’Gets may lie deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though the team in charge of discovering it has lost contact with the undersea lab, the Trieste, and its chief scientist, the brilliant but egotistical Clayton Nelson. One of Nelson’s colleagues – Dr. Cooper Westlake – has resurfaced, but what has happened to him is not pretty (to say the least), leading the team of above-ground researchers to suspect something is amiss on the Trieste. They recruit Clayton’s brother, a veterinarian named Luke – to descend to the bottom of the ocean and investigate.

What Luke finds eight miles below the surface of the Pacific beggars description, but the scenes of gory mayhem Cutter allows himself will be familiar to readers of his debut, The Troop. But whereas that story featured an ensemble cast of Boy Scouts trapped on an island alongside a particularly nasty biological antagonist, The Deep shares an affinity with The Damned in filtering its story through the perspective of a single male protagonist.

Cutter also ups the psychological aspect in this novel by supplying Luke with a backstory about a young son who disappeared in a public park one fall day during a game of hide-and-seek with his father. The incident costs Luke his marriage – his wife blames him for allowing their son to vanish – and the commingled guilt and post-traumatic stress are what simultaneously drive Luke and haunt him.

It is significant that both these novels have father figures at their hearts: fatherhood has clearly had an impact on both authors, and their fiction reflects the heightened emotions inherent in finding oneself in charge of a young person’s safety. Danny and Eddie forge a bond as father and stepson, in part because the young boy can also see Ash and knows that Danny is not crazy. Luke’s despair at the loss of his son is a manifestation of every parent’s terror that something dreadful and inexplicable might befall their child at any time, for any reason, and there is little or nothing they can do to prevent it. By comparison, the imagined horrors of spectral twins and unnameable creatures from the depths seem almost mild.

***

Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter will be appearing in Toronto tonight – Friday the 13th – as part of the Dark Side II: Highway of Horror Tour. Tonight’s event, sponsored by ELLE Man, takes place at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West, Toronto. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets $35.

Fast, raw, and nasty: Nick Cutter talks about The Troop

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The_TroopLast month, I posted a review of a forthcoming horror novel by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter; that novel, called The Troop, is an early contender for one of my favourite books of the year. In advance of its February 25 publication date, the author agreed to answer some e-mail questions about the origins of the novel, the use of violence in fiction, and the appeal of the horror genre to both writers and readers.

Where did the idea for The Troop come from?

I got the idea from a fortune cookie, if you can believe it! No, no, that’s a lie. It was from a Star Scroll that I bought at a Mac’s Milk. Okay, that’s a lie too.

The best I can tell you is this: A few years back I was at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and they had an exhibit on water. How we use it as a species, how it’s used around the world … and the things that live in it. There was a tiny little area set off one side of the sprawling exhibit, a dark little room with a videotape running on a loop. A doctor talking about the little creatures who take the villain’s role in this book – one of those roles, anyway. I was fascinated. The novel kind of popped into my head.

Why write a pure genre novel under a pseudonym?

Well, it was more my agent’s idea than anything. I love genre stuff. Horror, thriller, pulp, noir, sci-fi and fantasy, you name it. Some of my closest friends in this city either run or write for ChiZine, a genre press I know you’re familiar with. My first books, as you also know, were written under a pen name – they were horror, too.

Now, in that case my mother actually found a half-written novel on my computer, the snoop that she is (this was back when I was in undergrad; I was staying at their house over the summer, so I suppose she was somewhat entitled …) and saw this revolting, violent, nasty novel and said: You absolutely cannot drag the good [family name] through the mud; if you insist on publishing this, for Heaven’s sake do it under another name! That makes my Mom sound like a character from Downton Abbey, which she is not, but anyway, I acquiesced, despite the fact that my family name is not really “good” – we’re a family of knaves and rum runners, carpetbaggers and scoundrels, happily and admittedly so, so it was weird to hear my mother make the request.

The “Nick Cutter” pen name is a similar situation. My agent felt that there should be some separation between literary stuff and genre stuff, so this was the idea we settled on.

I just don’t want anyone thinking it’s because I’m ashamed of my work in this field, or put less work into it or anything like that (though I suppose that’s the reason why people might not use their real names …) Long story short, it’s rather easy to discover who Nick Cutter is.

You had pretty much been “outed” by the national media well before the novel was published. Did the public revelation of your “true identity” rankle with you?

Not at all, for the reasons above. Horror was my first love. I think this would be even less of an issue if my most recent novel hadn’t been nominated for a literary prize. But I haven’t ever written any book thinking awards would be in the cards. I don’t give any thought at all to any of that. The whole “literary” side of my career has been a surprise, right from the word go. I truly thought I’d be a horror writer. I wanted that, which is why this novel means a lot to me.

You wrote a previous horror novel, The Preserve, under a different pseudonym; that novel also dealt with a group of male characters in a horrific situation that was manipulated by humans. What is the attraction of this situation from a writer’s perspective?

I think, most simply, a lot of my horror ideas conform to standard tropes. One of the most common and workable ones is: take these characters, isolate them, introduce a threat, and let nature take its course. You can find an endless number of horror books and movies that follow this very simple and highly effective formula. It’s great because of course they can’t get external help, their civilities towards each other break down, dissension sets in, fear and paranoia grip them, and sooner or later the Devil comes out to play. Backgrounding all that is the story of how those characters came to be there, suffering the way they are. It often compounds the horror to know that other people – their actions, their callousness, their evil – put those characters in that terrible situation.

There are human villains in the novel, but the chief villain is, so to speak, “environmental.” Why did you choose this approach?

The primary idea was to create a villain you couldn’t outrun. You couldn’t run out of the spooky house; you couldn’t escape the basement where the terrors lurked. This monster lives under your skin. You carry it around with you. So the only real hope is that you don’t let it get inside.

Horror fiction often reflects the pervasive social fears of the time: giant mutated ants as metaphors for nuclear fallout in the 1950s, or vampires as metaphors for AIDS in the 1980s. Is contagion a key terror to be exploited by horror writers in the new millennium?

I imagine so. I think things like environmental devastation and the like will have more of a role in horror going forward; they certainly do in my stuff.

Before it was rampant consumerism or the Red Threat or stuff like that; it proved a fertile ground for horror. Now I think you look around and see the ways in which the life we’re living doesn’t quite seem sustainable, and there’s no agreement on how to tackle some of these monolithic problems facing us as a species – those things put the fear of God into me.

Nick_CutterAny time you feel helpless in the face of a vast, unquantifiable, and unbeatable force, there’s horror there. So The Troop echoes that just a little bit – though honestly, I didn’t write it with any kind of political or social motivation. I just wanted to write a fast, raw, and nasty fireballin’ horror book like the stuff I read as a teenager.

I find that nowadays so much of the horror is done by literary writers who kind of segue into it (mea culpa), and there’s always some kind of political allegory, or some kind of arch irony to it: this is horror, wink-wink, but smart, thinking people’s horror, not the kind of stuff you’d find on the drugstore spinning racks.

Well, I loved that kind of horror! Still do. And I find when it gets politicized or diffuse, the way some literary horror can be, it’s not disturbing or scary to me. It’s defanged and more palatable, but that’s not what I wanted to write. I don’t think that King and Barker and McCammon, my horror idols, had those motivations when writing, or those constraints. There are outliers like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is very literary and experimental but still scary as hell. Anyway, I decided not to bother trying to split that particular atom. Old-school horror. That’s what I went for.

Like most of your work, The Troop is a strongly masculine book: there are no female characters in it. Why do you gravitate to the masculine perspective and experience so insistently in your fiction?

Oh, I think probably because I wanted to keep it in a zone of experience that I knew and felt confident with. If I’d used a troop of Girl Scouts, it would have been a disaster because I really can’t claim to know how they’d think and it would have come off as some awful Judy Blume pastiche. I have no real idea how teenage girls think or behave in private with each other. So I just stuck with what I knew, and was able to cast my mind back to those days when I was a Scout, hanging out with other boys.

One book that has strong resonance in The Troop is Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, especially in a scene in which one character attempts to divest himself of what has infected him by cutting it out with a Swiss Army Knife. Did you have Smith’s novel in mind as you wrote The Troop?

That’s a great question and a good catch. You and my editor have eagle eyes. I read The Ruins when it came out years ago. Loved it. When it came to writing The Troop, I wasn’t consciously aware of that resonance, although there’s a difference in that the character who cuts himself is goaded into it by another character, whereas in The Ruins that character acts alone. Regardless, the resemblance is definitely there.

Scott Smith blurbed The Troop; in fact, other than my agent and father, he was the first person to read it. His blurb probably helped sell it. He also gave some really great edits, which I implemented before the manuscript was subbed. After he bought it, my editor brought up this scene in relation to The Ruins. I had to hustle to the bookshelf and read the book again, and yes, there’s definitely a similarity. I couldn’t believe Scott hadn’t made note of it, actually. So I didn’t have Smith’s book in mind as I wrote, but for that specific scene, a debt is due.

The violence in the novel is plentiful and graphic. As a writer, what is your relationship with, and your attitude toward, violence in fiction?

It’s great! I dig it!

In all seriousness, if it serves a point I’m all for it. I spoke about this somewhere else, when someone asked if I’d gotten the “tone” of the book right. I said that I wasn’t sure I found the right tone, really, but it’s impossible to find the tone that suits every reader. If I’d softened some of it, the real horror lovers (at least lovers of a certain type of horror) would’ve said I’d chickened out instead of going for the jugular; and since I wrote it the way I did, no holds barred, you’ll have some readers saying I went too far. It’s a no-win situation, so I just wrote it the way that felt most natural to me.

Y’know, there’s kind of a sentiment in CanLit (at least as I interpret it) that you ought to gloss over or find a poetic distancing device to describe horrific events. I remember reading some book, can’t remember the title, that described a mortar blast dismembering someone, and it was painted in such a distant way, metaphors of flowers blooming and paper dolls ripped apart and whatnot, totally uninvolved and distanced from how the event would actually unfold. It felt like a huge cheat to me, a lie and a bromide to a certain readership who could only accept reading about such an event if you painted the outside corners of it, poeticized and almost romanticized it.

I think that’s cheap, and it’s kind of weak-willed on both an author and a reader’s part. If you’re gonna write it, write it. Don’t gloss it or weasel it or try to turn something rotten or terrible or terrifying into something palatable and sane and cleansed. Or do that, but don’t get pissy when someone else takes a different tack on the same scene, one that paints it in what may be its truer, unflinching colours.

Anyway, that’s me bitching and complaining. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. I don’t want to throw shade on anyone, or on my nation’s literature, which by and large I love. All of which is to say, some scenes in the book were tough to write but they felt like vital scenes, true to my sense of the world. But people’s tastes are gonna vary on that, and that’s totally fine and understandable.

What is it about the horror genre that interests you as a writer? What keeps readers returning to the genre?

I love to be scared. It’s a masochistic impulse. Sadly, the more you try to push that fear button, the more dulled it gets from overuse. It’s harder and harder to scare people. So what keeps people returning, I imagine, is what keeps a heroin addict returning to the needle: that familiar rush. Problem being, at least an addict knows he’ll get a rush. A lot of books probably disappoint on that level.

Do you worry about being dismissed as a serious writer on the basis of your genre fiction?

When I consider the individuals who would dismiss me or anyone else on those grounds, and consider the fact that I don’t really give a shit about the opinions of such individuals, it doesn’t worry me at all, no.

Will you continue to write pure horror fiction alongside your more “literary” output?

The market will make that decision. If the books tank, I won’t be allowed to continue at all. If they do okay, I’d happily keep writing them. If one stream runs more fruitfully than the other, I imagine I might flow with it. I have a mortgage to pay off!

Strong nerves, strong stomachs, no quarter: Nick Cutter’s The Troop

January 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Troop. Nick Cutter; $29.99 cloth 978-1-4767-1771-5, 368 pp., Gallery Books

The_Troop(Note: This is an early review from an advance reading copy. Simon & Schuster Canada will release this title in February.)

Some novels comfort readers, snuggle with them and stroke their hair and whisper reassuringly that everything will be alright. Other novels come at their readers with a sledgehammer. The Troop, by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter, is the second kind. The book, about a group of five boy scouts who, along with their adult scoutmaster, go camping on an uninhabited island off the north coast of PEI, where they are beset by a stranger carrying a mysterious – and highly dangerous – contagion, is billed as “a novel of terror,” but this is somewhat akin to calling Ebola a minor skin irritation.

Cutter wastes little time on the niceties, setting up his scenario and sketching his characters in quick, broad strokes. He is much more interested in ratcheting up the tension, something he begins doing in the opening chapters and continues more or less remorselessly for the next three hundred pages. This is a book that works best if a reader knows little or nothing about the plot going in, so suffice to say that as the nature of the threat facing the boys becomes clearer, Cutter inserts scenes and set pieces that are more and more outrageous, more and more over the top.

Thanks to various national media outlets, it is by now an open secret that Cutter is actually Craig Davidson, whose 2013 literary novel, Cataract City, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Many critics, in describing that book, used the word “mature,” which seemed to be code for “restrained.” In his earlier literary work under his own name (one previous novel, The Fighter, the novel-in-stories Sarah Court, and a collection of stories, Rust and Bone) and a pure horror novel called The Preserve, also written under a pseudonym, the author had indulged in scenes of violence and machismo that were rare in CanLit and felt – to a certain sensibility, at least – like a breath of fresh air. These were not absent from Cataract City, but it was clear that Davidson had worked to tone down his more overt tendencies in the area of explicit gore.

By contrast, there is nothing restrained about The Troop. Operating within a genre context, the author has allowed the darker side of his imagination to run riot, infusing the book with moments of Grand Guignol and body horror that recall Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, as well as David Cronenberg’s early film Shivers and Eli Roth’s cinema debut, Cabin Fever. The writing is propulsive and the momentum fairly unstoppable. Once this book has you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

What is most surprising in this regard are the moments of real tenderness that appear in the novel. A camaraderie develops between certain characters, leading in one instance to a moving scene in which they rescue a group of newborn turtles they have stumbled across. Elsewhere, one of the boys relates the story of a school project that involved carrying around a bag of flour as though it were a baby to teach the responsibilities of parenting. The boy, who is overweight and prone to sweating, carried his “baby” around diligently until the sweat from his hands soaked through the bag and it split down the middle. “I’m just saying that sometimes the more you care for something, the more damage you do,” the despondent boy concludes. This is an observation many more self-consciously literary novels would fail to arrive at. And there is an almost aching poignancy in the payoff involving a fictitious online persona the same overweight character creates to make himself appear more handsome and worldly than he actually is. What is most impressive is that these moments don’t feel like awkward authorial intrusions, but arise organically out of the context the novelist has created and developed.

Make no mistake, however: Cutter’s main concern resides with the horror aspects of his story, and he gives no quarter in this regard. Readers will require strong nerves and even stronger stomachs to endure some of what this novel throws at them, but there is a real energy to the writing, and it is clear that the author is having one hell of a good time, something that proves (pardon the pun) contagious. The Troop does not fall into the category of ironic, postmodern horror that was popular at the movies in the 1990s; rather, it is a straightforward, no-holds-barred tale of terror that starts strong and builds relentlessly to its conclusion. It is one of the goriest, gooiest, most gleefully grotesque novels to appear in a long, long time. Popular fiction doesn’t get much better than this.