Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

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S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Dark_WindowsTitle: Dark Windows
Author: Louis Greenberg
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: literary fiction, speculative fiction
Rating: 7/10

It’s apt that I finished this review on the day of South Africa’s general elections: Dark Windows is based on a fantasy of a political party that makes our country’s dreams come true. In an alternative South Africa, the Gaia Peace party has been in power for the past ten years. Somehow, its combination of New Age beliefs and social welfare policies have ‘cured’ crime. Johannesburg, previously known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is now peaceful and safe.

Unfortunately it all seems too good to last. Not everyone buys into Gaia Peace’s happy hippie miracle and Joburg is growing restless with the threat of violence. At the same time, Minister of Wellness Meg Hewitt is quietly setting Project Dark Windows in motion to prepare for some mystical, world-changing event. Something momentous is about to happen, but no one knows what’s coming. Is it aliens? The apocalypse? A new age of enlightenment? Or just social upheaval?

Kenneth Lang has spent 35 years working in government, from the apartheid regime through the ANC years to Gaia Peace. He holds a vaguely titled but senior position and specialises in strange, unofficial operations, so Meg Hewitt instructs him to handle Project Dark Windows. The requirements are simple and specific: Find five rooms, within a target area, that have been left vacant after the death of the occupant. Clean the windows and paint them black. Set up motion and heat detectors, then lock up. Lang has no idea what the point is, but he complies partly because he’s intrigued and partly because his job has taught him to shut up and follow orders.

Lang hires Jay Rowan, who’s been doing weird, sporadic jobs for him since the 90s. Jay is reliable and discreet, but after having his life fall apart over the past year, he also wants to “show he’s good for something, even if it’s obscure and vaguely ridiculous government work”.

The best thing in Jay’s life at the moment is his affair with a married woman named Beth. He takes her to one of the Dark Windows’ sites, where they learn about the supposed suicides of the two girls who lived there. Beth is moved by the girls’ stories and endeavours to learn more. Her investigation leads her to a suspicious student protest group while reminding her of the dark secrets of her past. Political stories intertwine with personal ones, and Joburg moves slowly toward an unknown possibility.

You might think that the idea of a New Age political party called Gaia Peace is as absurd as I did, but I think that’s the point. Many of the characters feel that way too. In fact, none of them – with the possible exception of the President – can really take the New Age stuff seriously, although most play along. No one is sure exactly how a party like Gaia Peace succeeded in a country like South Africa.

The very idea really is ludicrous partly because it’s so kooky (with the herbal tea and healing colours) and partly because the majority of South Africans are just too conservative. For example, the president in Dark Windows is a black lesbian in a interracial marriage. I can’t imagine how that could possibly happen given that our current, democratically elected president is a barely-educated traditionalist who doesn’t seem to know about the women’s and gay rights in our constitution. Despite his blatant corruption, people still support him because he’s ANC, but most would never support a gay woman.

Gaia Peace’s policies also include security reduction – most of the locks, gates and alarm systems that South Africans would consider essential to their safety are now illegal. Again, it seems impossible that our society could give this up, although in this case there are people railing against it:

These protesters were once children who slept safely knowing their daddy owned a gun. They want their talismans back; they need the comforting confinement of battle lines.

How did a bunch of “hippie activists” do it? Lang works in the presidency and he doesn’t even understand it.

What’s stopping people, is what he wants to know. Even if it’s true that all their basic needs are seen to, do people just stop being greedy; do they just stop wanting quick and easy gains? Surely greed – our instinctive urge to stockpile – is far more hardwired into the human psyche than social harmony? Has humanity really evolved so much in the past few years?

It looks like they have, but it’s still hard to believe the evidence. A student protest group called Out of Our Minds suggests that it’s all mind control. The words “miracle” and “hoax” are often used. Some people seem opposed to the party just because they can’t believe what it’s achieved. It’s “hard for disillusioned people to buy new illusions”, as Jay suggests. The novel doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation; what’s more important is the way people feel about it, and what it means in this context.

I think the absurdity of a New Age party revolutionising our political landscape reflects a sad truth about South Africans – we’re so disillusioned that the idea of a truly progressive government that minimises crime, corruption and nepotism, while providing quality education and healthcare for all is just ridiculous. If you believe that one of our political parties will deliver this then you might as well believe in colour therapy and Reiki too.

Then again, perhaps belief is all you need, and this is another important issue that Gaia Peace raises. As I said, no one seems to believe in any of the New Age stuff, but lots of people are happy to play along because it works. “[T]hings sure as shit could be better, but they sure as shit have been worse” is the refrain. It’s also just kind of nice and inoffensive. In one of the earlier scenes, Jay goes for the hot-rock therapy that he receives as part of his probation after getting into a drunk driving accident. He considers the idea that it’s abusive somehow, with the state asserting control over his body, but he’s warm and comfortable so what is there to complain about really?

But there are problems. Gaia Peace isn’t perfect, or can’t be perfect. At least it’s not the dystopian scenario you might expect – Gaia Peace doesn’t have a sinister side that enabled their rise to power. They’re exactly what they say they are. As Greenberg states in a guest post for Lauren Beukes about his inspiration for the book, it’s “not a dystopian novel but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality”. Reality is human nature. Reality is a country with a long history of violence. Reality is the people who can’t forget being victims of violent crime. Jay is one of them. He likes Gaia Peace, but when his wife was sexually assaulted in their home, violent crime had become a kind of political blind spot. Her trauma was “made invisible”. “How do you achieve justice for something that didn’t officially happen?” Jay asks, with no hope of an answer.

Jay’s concerns bring me to another important point about the novel – despite the political framework, it’s very personal. All the major characters are grappling with their own issues. Jay looks to Beth for comfort and escape. When he stands silent in the darkness of the rooms he’s painted, he likens it to Beth and imagines her as a warm, dark space where he can hide from the world. Beth on the other hand enjoys the affair for its sinful passion – a way of escaping her unfulfilling marriage to a boring, strictly Catholic man. She thought adopting his religion would help her find some kind of meaning, but it hasn’t. Now, what she wants is for Jay to “clarify” her. She’s also seeking some kind of atonement for an event in her past, which is primarily why she takes such an interest in the suicides of the teenage girls.

Kenneth Lang is coming to the end of a career that is partly responsible for his failed marriage and his awkward relationship with his teenage daughter, Melanie. When Melanie ends up in hospital after a drug overdose, he finds himself pulled back and forth between work and the hospital, struggling to function effectively in either space. To a lesser extent we also see the struggles of Minister Meg Hewitt, who is also the President’s wife. As much as she loves and supports her wife, she doesn’t want to be the next ruler as the President has requested. She’s kept Project Dark Windows secret from her too. Partly because of this marital strife, Deputy President Kanyane lurks malevolently in the background, ready to assert police and military power should anything happen to the President.

Although their problems are varied, these characters are all looking for purpose and certainty where there isn’t much to be had. They want some kind of belief or understanding to hang on to, but objective truths elude them. Project Dark Windows has the same kind of personal desperation to it. It could be total bullshit, or could be epochal, but who knows what will happen? In the context of the novel, it’s just as important as the truth about the suicides, Beth’s decision to stay with Jay, or Lang’s relationship with his daughter. Greenberg’s guest post has a lovely quote about the way he’s balanced the personal and political:

I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs.

It’s understandable then that this book never ceases to be uncertain and, at the end, offers as many unanswered questions as it does resolutions. It’s the kind of literary novel that will frustrate some spec fic readers because it’s very slow and contemplative. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I’d finished. I had to think about it for a while and go through my notes before I could even begin writing the review. That’s probably not the kind of experience you’d expect when someone says the word “apocalypse”. In fact we never find out if there will be an apocalypse, so don’t come to the novel looking for action and destruction. Instead, enjoy it for Greenberg’s very beautiful writing, his characters, and his insights into the personal side of SA politics, morality, faith, and human nature.

If you like the cover, check out my cover-reveal interview with designer Joey Hi-Fi.

DARK WINDOWS by LOUIS GREENBERG: Cover reveal and Joey Hi-Fi Interview

I have a particularly good post for you today: South African author Louis Greenberg asked me to do the cover reveal for his upcoming literary thriller Dark Windows, as well as an interview with artist Joey Hi-Fi. I will politely keep all squee-type noises to myself, but seriously, how awesome is this?!

Dark Windows – forthcoming from Umuzi in April 2014 – is Louis’s first solo project since The Beggars’ Signwriters was published in 2006. Since then he’s teamed up with Sarah Lotz to for the horror-writing duo S.L. Grey. Now he’s dabbling in the literary side of speculative fiction, which is my drug of choice. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Dark Windows is set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. A wave of New-Age belief has radically altered the country’s political landscape, but not everyone buys into the miracle. Gaia Peace, the party which swept to power ten years ago on the back of a miracle cure for crime and a revolutionary social welfare programme, is still firmly ensconced, but the cracks are showing.

Jay Rowan does his job and doesn’t ask questions. He’s already in probationary therapy for a drunk driving accident, and he’s not looking for trouble. Now Kenneth Lang, a veteran political aide, has hired Jay to paint in the windows of apparently random vacant rooms.

Lang has survived a long career of political change, and is not about to start questioning orders, even when they are as misguided as senior minister Meg Hewitt’s latest obsession, project Dark Windows. A mystical charlatan has convinced her that she can attract a world-changing supernatural visitation, the Arrival.

Beth Talbot, the married woman Jay is seeing, is compelled by the supposed suicides of two students in a residence building. Her growing interest in the case leads her to a seditious student group and back into the past she’s been trying to avoid.

A unique and genre-defying plot like that is perfectly suited to Joey Hi-Fi’s bizarrely beautiful illustrated covers. Joey’s work became well-known on the sff scene after designing covers for Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and the Miriam Black series, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and all of Lauren Beukes’s novels (most notably The Shining Girls and Zoo City). But enough phaffing about; here’s the cover you came to see:

Dark_Windows

Once again, Joey has created the kind of cover that makes me want the book regardless of what’s inside it. And here’s the man himself, to tell us all about it 🙂

Welcome to Violin in a Void Joey! It’s a great honour to have you. You’re one of the few people who’s had the privilege of reading Dark Windows; the rest of us will have to wait until next year. What did you think of it?

It grips you from the first page. It’s unusual, straddles a few genres and takes you to very, very unexpected places.
It’s an alternate history of South Africa you’ve never read before.
Unlike most cover designers, you’re known for immersing yourself in the novel before creating its ‘face’ – you read the book when possible and collaborate with both the author and the publisher. Can you describe this process for Dark Windows? What was it like working with Louis?

“She was screaming, but the door was locked. When they got inside, there was nobody. Just the window open. The way Trini likes to go. Sonia was on the bed, blood coming out everywhere.”

I loved The Mall, which Louis co-wrote with Sarah Lotz under the guise of S.L. Grey. It still has me looking nervously over my shoulder while shopping at malls! So I was very excited when the cover design brief for Dark Windows landed in my inbox.

That being said, It was fantastic working with Louis. He supplied me with additional info whenever I needed it – and his insights were invaluable during the design process. It’s always a plus when you have access to the author.
 
Although I try to apply the same steps in the design process to each book-cover-design project, every novel is obviously different and publishers and authors work in a variety of ways. Along with the brief, I usually ask for a manuscript and any other additional info (either from the author or publisher).
 
Along with the manuscript, I received a rough cover concept from Louis as well. His rough idea immediately intrigued me – but having not read the novel I wasn’t sure of it’s significance as yet. About 2 or 3 pages into the manuscript I was pretty sure that It was a solid direction for the cover. By the last page of the novel I was convinced of it.
 
The title of the novel is very evocative and conjures up a particular set of images in one’s mind. The plot in part deals with windows that are being painted black by the protagonist in the novel. So I thought that image would be unique and mysterious enough to draw the viewer in.
I also decided that the cover concept would be best communicated by using either a photo or a photorealistic illustration. I’m not a big fan of using stock photography on book covers, so In the end I decided to engage the warp drive on my Wacom pen and go the photorealistic illustration route.
Thus the cover is not one photo at all – but mostly an illustration with a little photography thrown in.
Illustrating the cover gave me more control over what kind of window frame I wanted, how I wanted the paint to look and what the atmosphere of the room should be.
 
Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Using Louis’s initial rough idea as a starting point I worked from there to produce a first draft. To get both Umuzi (the publisher) and Louis on board I initially presented a more pared-down version of the cover. I wanted them to be happy with the direction before taking the illustration and design further.

Once both Louis and the publisher were on board with the direction the cover was headed, we discussed ways to take it further. I’ve always loved working with positive and negative space. So The positive and negative spaces provided by the black paint seemed like the perfect opportunity to add additional detail to the cover. I liked the the idea of the cover having details which wouldn’t be immediately visible – but would be revealed upon closer inspection.
I then asked Louis for a list of elements he thought were key in the novel. Working from this list I picked a few which I thought would work on the cover.
I then weaved those into the illustration of the black paint.
 
Once I’d crafted the cover somewhat I presented the final draft of the cover – which was approved by Umuzi and Louis.
Thus the cover for the mysterious creature that is Dark Windows was born.
 

“the hospital’s obscene smokestack pumping burned waste-flesh into the air between spitting pines and concrete”

The title suggests windows made of tinted glass, but the blurb and your cover describe a window obscured with painted images. One reality blocks out another. What is is being covered up and why? Is this how Jay paints the windows?

As the cover and title suggests, part of the mystery in the novel involves windows which are being painted black by Jay (the protagonist in the novel). 
So the cover is inspired by a scene in the book. The images weaved into the black paint are more representative of events in the novel and are not mean’t to be taken literally. To find out  the significance of the black painted windows and various images you would have to read the book!
The cover could have focused only on the window pane, or the window and the frame, but it takes a step back to include the wall, putting the viewer inside a cold, hard space. Why the interior perspective?
 
The vacant rooms mentioned in the novel have their own dark story to tell. So I wanted to communicate that in a subtle way using lighting and colour.
I felt that just a close crop of a window would lack that uneasy, almost eerie atmosphere that I thought the cover needed.
 
Let’s look at the images on the window; what made you choose these?
All the images are inspired by events or characters from the novel. I wanted to choose a set of images that I thought would represent the world of Dark WindowsAnd since the novel deals with themes that are quite varied in nature, this meant everything from New Age symbols to ritual sacrifice to protesting students to political intrigue … and haunted rooms.
 

“A dreadlocked kid lolls against the jamb, holding a fat joint. The opaque smoke seems to defy the breeze as it wends upward from his hand against his dark T-shirt, but is finally whisked over his shoulder in the current.”

Louis described the novel as a “literary thriller”, and for me the cover evokes both mystery and horror. Many of the images are explicitly threatening (the screaming woman, the heavily armed police) while more innocuous images take on a sinister tone. The man having a hot stone massage looks to me like some kind of cultist or human sacrifice; the smoker with the dreadlocks looks more like a Predator than a human. Was this intentional or is it just my weird interpretation?

That was intentional. Although Dark WIndows is a ‘literary thriller’ it also has mystery and horror elements to it. All the images included on the cover depict scenes or characters from the book in some way. Since the novel has this undercurrent of unease and menace throughout, the images tend to lean towards the darker side. As you read the book the meaning behind each image will become clearer.
This is a relatively sparse piece compared to your other covers, which typically feature a riot of detailed illustrations. Does the tone of Dark Windows require a more subtle approach?
In a way yes. I obviously take my visual cues for the cover from the novel, and I let the novel dictate what the cover should be.
For Dark Windows, I thought the image of a window painted black captured the tone of the book well. I also felt it was an interesting and strong enough image to carry the cover.
 
Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

There’s a lot of texture in the paint of the window and the wall – will the cover have any finishes to match the visual with the physical?

I hope so! *Looks longingly at the publisher*. We have discussed adding a UV spot varnish for just the black paint on the window.
Well I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you so much for your time and insights Joey!
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I also have to thank Louis for inviting me to do his cover reveal; it’s an honour and a pleasure to host it. I really enjoyed doing this interview, not only because I love Joey’s work but because it made me take a close look at every element in the Dark Windows cover.
I hope everyone finds this close-up equally illuminating. Now we just have to wait oh so patiently for Dark Windows to be published so we can discover the true significance of all those images and find out exactly what happened in those vacant rooms. I have already demanded my review copy…

South African SF, F and Horror: What can we look forward to?

I just got back from BookEx at Sandton Convention Centre, where I attended what was probably South Africa’s first sci fi, fantasy and horror panel (woohoo!). Dave-Brendon from DaveBrendon’s Fantasy and SciFi Weblog chaired the panel, which featured SA authors Sarah Lotz, Louis Greenberg and Lauren Beukes. Admittedly, South Africa has precious little SF, F or horror to boast, so it wasn’t surprising that the panel was cruelly scheduled for 4pm, on the very last day of the expo, but I’m hoping the fact that there was a panel at all is a sign of exciting things to come. It’s not like we’re short on fans, so where’s the fiction? But even in places where the SF, F, and horror industries are booming, those genres are still seen as publishing ‘ghettos’ as Lauren described it, supposedly lacking the quality and depth of so-called literary fiction. Any reader of good SF, F and horror knows better though, and the panel started off by chatting about the social edge often found in genre fiction, its potential for satire. At the same time, Lauren said she doesn’t like genre and she hates being boxed with labels like ‘cyberpunk’ or ‘urban fantasy’. Forget about genre, she said; just read what interests and surprises you.

The panel authors certainly have some interesting new books for us. Sarah and Louis both love horror and have collaborated on a horror novel titled The Mall, where an emo-kid bookseller and a coke-junkie babysitter are drawn into the bowels of an otherworldly mall. Sarah and Louis described the collaboration process – a kind of good-natured sadism where they took turns writing and each left the characters in impossibly difficult situations (like being stuck in a room full of mirrors with no door) that the other would have to write them out of. That sounds like a promise of a lot of terrifying fun. The Mall will be published in June 2011 under the pseudonym S. L. Grey. I’m really keen to get my hands on a copy as soon as I can, so I’ll keep you guys updated. In the meantime, enjoy the luscious cover:

Sarah and her daughter have also written a YA zombie novel called Deadlands, which will be out in March next year, published under the name Lily Hearn. Lauren is working on a new novel – an Apartheid thriller, which will be a change of pace from her two previous novels, but having enjoyed both Moxyland and Zoo City, I’m willing to follow her down whichever road she chooses to take.

I asked the panel what they thought a South African context could bring to genre fiction. Many South Africans, when they think of our country’s fiction they think of fiction about race relations, Apartheid and post-Apartheid politics. Is this essential to the South African novel? What else can South African writers bring to sci fi, fantasy and horror? Sarah and Louis had already mentioned malls and hospitals as potential sites of horror in SA, because of the way social injustice and evil collects there. In Lauren’s opinion, SA novels certainly don’t have to be Apartheid novels, but they have to acknowledge what has happened to this country as a result of Apartheid. She also emphasised how important it was to write novels set in South Africa – no one wants to read fantasy novels set in Middle Earth anymore; it’s been done to death. Similarly, paranormal romance fill shelf after shelf with vampire/werewolf/angel/demi-god love affairs. For South African writers to produce another one of these is to compete with the millions already out there.

Not to mention the fact that South African publishers aren’t interested in novels that aren’t, well, South African. Sarah further emphasised the need for local settings when she told us about a writing class that was held for children in the Cape Flats. Most of the participants wrote vampire stories set in American locker rooms and yet these kids had never even seen an American locker room. The problem seems to be that we’re over-influenced by the over-abundance of fiction from the US and the UK and, as Lauren suggested, SA writers don’t feel cool enough to compete. In the meantime, publishers are looking for “the South African Twilight” (yes, I cringed when I heard that. I really hope they’re just referring to popularity and that publishers aren’t scouting for million-rand drivel).

In reference to the race relations mentioned in my question, Louis added that we’re already thinking about it in new ways, allowing Lauren Beukes, a white woman, to write in the persona of a black woman for her novel Zoo City. What’s exciting about this is that South Africans can use fiction to speak for each other, that writers can safely explore a variety of racial and political identities rather than feeling trapped in racial stereotypes. Besides exploring identity, I’m looking forward to the unique ideas and territories that SA writers can create in SF, F and horror. It’s a fresh market, and the fans are there, locally and internationally, eager as always. And I for one would love to find new worlds in the streets and buildings I know so well.