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:

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

Daily Reads: 16 December 2014

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It’s that time of year when people start posting their best-of lists, and I tend to start feeling guilty about all the books I never got around to reading. But it’s a good kind of guilt, if that makes sense, because it helps me prioritise my tbr pile, turns my attention to interesting new books I never took much notice of before, and generally just whips up fresh enthusiasm for new fiction. And since I’m looking forward to another kind of good guilt, the kind that comes with having enjoyed too much delicious food and wine, I decided to post some of the sff lists I’ve been looking at.

Tor.com posted Reviewer’s Choice: The Best Books of 2014. Some very exciting stuff here, especially since the reviewers have listed some lesser-known works. I’m so happy to see SA authors Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz there too.

SF Signal’s recent Mind Meld is about the best sff movies of 2014. I don’t feel guilty about not having watched most of these movies, simply because I can’t (there’s only one tiny cinema in Addis Ababa screening new international movies). Nevertheless, I love film and I’ll be moving back to SA soon, so I’m adding a couple of these to my must-watch list. Interstellar gets a few mentions, of course, but what I’d really like to watch is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as an old, pretentious vampire couple.

Chaos Horizon is a blog dedicated to predicting the Nebula and Hugo nominees based on statistical modelling. It’s a good place to keep track of buzz books and get a feel for these awards. The latest post is an update on the Nebula 2015 predictions. I feel rather chuffed for having actually read quite a few of these and owning a couple of others, although I’m annoyed that I passed up a chance at a review copy of The Goblin Emperor. Anyway, more items on the list of books to buy.

And finally, not a list, but some awesome news – Saga Press is publishing a Kameron Hurley space opera! It’s called The Stars Are Legion, and ok, it’s only coming out in 2016, but I’m already going all squee. Click through to read Aiden Moher’s interview with Hurley, and find out what kind of mind-blowing weirdness we can expect from the novel. You might always want to start following Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new sff imprint, launching in spring 2015. Upcoming titles include books by Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine, and Kat Howard.

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments 🙂

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeTitle: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Published: 22 May 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, thriller, fantasy or science fiction
Rating: 8/10

On 12 January 2012, a day that will come to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash within several hours of each other. One plane goes down in Aokigahara, an infamous Japanese forest where people go to to commit suicide. One plane goes down in the Florida everglades, one off the coast of Portugal. The fourth crash is the most destructive, landing in Khayalitsha, the most populous township in Cape Town, South Africa. There are only three survivors, one child on three of the four planes – Bobby in the US, Jess in the UK, and Hiro in Japan. Their survival should have been impossible, so the crashes not only cause a wave of shock and grief, but a flood of conspiracy theories and religious fanaticism.

And no matter how absurd some of these beliefs are, you start to feel that they might contain some truth. When Bobby, Jess and Hiro wake up, they’re not quite the same children they used to be, and strange things happen around them. After Bobby moves in with his grandparents, his grandfather Reuben starts recovering from his Alzheimers. Jess’s uncle – Paul Craddock – becomes her legal guardian, but his resolve to take care of her starts to crumble under the influence of her weirdly calm, sunny demeanour (as if she didn’t just lose her parents and twin sister) and the terrifying figure that appears at the end of his bed in the middle of the night. Hiro does not speak except through the unnervingly realistic surrabot designed by his father, a robotics genius.

Journalist Elspeth Martins endeavours to tell the story, and the novel consists almost entirely of the book she publishes – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The book is composed of a variety of materials cutting across a range of cultures and experiences – excerpts from Paul Craddock’s unfinished biography; online chats between Hiro’s cousin Chiyoko and a geek named Ryu who never leaves his room; news articles; and interviews conducted by Elspeth herself. Besides the main characters, we hear from people involved in the rescue efforts, other journalists, investigators, a domestic worker who lives in Khayelitsha, etc. Only at the beginning and the very end do we get more traditional bits of narrative that fall outside Elspeth’s book.

Black Thursday – and The Three as a whole – describes three key things. Firstly, the four terrible plane crashes on Black Thursday, and the grief that follows. Secondly, the three child survivors, seen mostly from the perspectives of their families. Finally, and most importantly, it describes the beginning of the global reaction, which rears up like a monster as terrifying as the children and destructive as the plane crashes. What we have is not just a macabre international incident, but what could be the beginnings of global collapse.

The novel starts out by thrusting you right into the terror of the Japanese plane crash. Pamela May Donald, a Christian from small-town America, is so nervous about travelling in an alien culture that she was too scared to use the toilet at the airport in case she couldn’t figure out how to flush it. Her anxiety sets the tone and intensifies as the plane goes down. She wakes up soon after it crashes, her body broken and dying, flames all around, corpses hanging from the trees of the suicide forest. In her final moments, she sees ghosts and a strange boy, and records a cryptic warning message on her phone:

They’re here. I’m . . . don’t let Snookie eat chocolate, it’s poison for dogs, she’ll beg you, the boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many . . . They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…

Pamela’s message becomes the catalyst for a wave of religious fanaticism. Pastor Len is the leader of her church (a small, conservative congregation), and after hearing the message he decides that Pamela is a prophet, the children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they need to find the fourth child because these are the End Times and the prophecies of the book of Revelations are coming true. Of course, he has been chosen to spread the word, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about taking care of Pamela’s dog although she also stressed this in her message. Pastor Len’s fervour is both disturbing and funny, especially when he says things like this:

It’s clear as a bell. How much clearer could the message be? The Lord is good, listeners, He isn’t going to mess around with obfuscation. (talking about how the crashes and the colours of the planes’ logos are obvious proof that the Four Horsemen are here)

His certainty is very similar to that of the guy who argues (with an overabundance of capital letters) that the Three are controlled by aliens:

The children have been IMPLANTED and they are watching us to see what we will do. THIS CAN BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION!!!!

I scoff at these guys, and yet there were times when I wondered if they were at least partly right. The problem is that you can’t be sure. This is not the kind of horror novel where the terror eventually steps out into the open and everything is explained. To be honest, I wanted more overt horror, but at the same time I’m one of those people who is usually disappointed when the monsters are revealed, and I have to credit the subtle, cerebral horror that Lotz has crafted.

It’s unclear if the children are truly malevolent or evil, but they are childish in ways that have their own terrible implications. And part of what’s scary about The Three is our alienation from the truth. As readers, our experience is similar to that of the characters and the fictional public in the novel – there’s so little we know, and so little that we can know. Elspeth’s book is our best source of information, and it’s full of people who don’t know what the fuck is going on even when they think they do. Horror stories usually have that one person who understands what’s happening, but no one on Earth understands the Three, except the children themselves (who might not be children anymore) and they’re not telling. We are held at a distance, with no hope of knowing the whole truth.

Unfortunately another problem is that some people claim to know the truth and can wield their crackpot theories in the absence of better explanations. Pastor Len and similar right-wing religious fanatics are the main problem here, and the Three represent a massive opportunity for them to grab at money and power. The Christian fanatics can be quite scary, but The Three also questions the tendency for all of us to indulge in conspiracies:

why are people so fast to think the worst or waste their time believing in frankly bizarre and convoluted theories? Sure, the odds of this happening are infinitesimal, but come on! Are we that bored? Are we all, at heart, just Internet trolls?

You also need to think about the way Elspeth’s book itself fits into this story. She makes it sound so noble and authoritative, claiming that it’s “an objective account”, and her motivation was to “to provide an unbiased platform for the perspectives of those closest to the main players”. At the same time, she warns readers “to remember that these accounts are subjective and to draw their own conclusions”.

“Objective”? “Unbiased platform”? These terms are deeply suspicious, even if Elspeth’s intentions are good. She’s limited in terms of what she can include in her book. Notably, none of the children get a an “unbiased platform” and are always seen through the eyes of others. And we don’t hear from people like Reuben (who experiences at least a temporary cure for his Alzheimer’s), the children who go to school with Jess, or the doctors who treat the Three. At the same time, many of the people Elspeth talks have already interpreted events based on the way things turned out, or are speaking with the understanding that their words will be made public. Elspeth also chooses what goes into the book, and edits the interviews she conducts, so how “objective” is all of this?

Then there’s the warning about subjectivity and the request that people draw their own conclusions. Sounds reasonable until you remember that people like Pastor Len drew their own conclusions from subjective accounts like Pamela’s last words. So while Black Thursday tells us most of the story of the Three, it becomes a part of that story too, with the potential to be just as dangerous as it is enlightening. As Lotz’s readers, we get to read just a little bit more at the beginning and the end, enough to get a glimpse of the terrifying big picture.

I also wanted to comment on the narrative structure. Because it’s made up of so many POVs and forms, the story moves slowly and thoughtfully. Lotz does a great job of making the interviews and other accounts seem realistic, which has loads of advantages but a couple of disadvantages too. When people tell stories they contextualise them by talking about themselves and their circumstances, and often draw out the details. This is partly why it moves so slowly, but it also gives the novel depth and texture. I really liked the bits of Japanese and South African culture and language that Lotz weaves into those parts of the stories. I learned the Japanese term hikikomori – “Someone who is socially isolated to the extent that they rarely (or never) leave their room” – and the emoticon ORZ (a figure kneeling with its head on the ground, indicating frustration or despair. The O is the head, R the torso, Z the legs).

There are loads of characters, but Lotz handles them very well by giving them distinct voices or at least intriguing stories. For example I enjoyed reading the interviews with Reba, a woman from Pastor Len’s church who claims to have been Pamela’s best friend but very obviously isn’t. There’s a short piece from a black South African domestic worker that does a fantastic job of relating class issues in the country, while other South African characters add a dose of humour with local styles of speech. Jess’s uncle, Paul Craddock (a gay English actor) is a bit bland, but his story is the creepiest as Jess unnerves him in ways that the other children’s guardians do not experience.

Several of the reviews I’ve read argued that the many POVs makes it hard to connect with the characters. Personally this wasn’t really a problem for me, not because I connected strongly with the characters but because I think having them at a distance is kind of the point and suits the story.

On the other hand the story is also necessarily incomplete and this did bug me a bit because I wanted to know so much more. In writing this review though, I started to better appreciate the balance Lotz struck between information and intrigue about the Three. Those kids are just one subject in the novel. The is also about us, the weird and warped ways in which we might react to an event like Black Thursday, and how the world could be changed by it.

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.