Last 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.
Any 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!