When you begin to brainstorm how many diverse tendrils this beastly plant we call “horror” has spread into the soils of literature (or how many strained metaphors), historical horror might not be the first sub genre that comes to mind. But if you look hard, you’ll find many fantastic examples by some of the best writers in the field (Dan Simmons and Robert Bloch among them). And when done well, a dark period piece can be an incredibly rewarding experience for the reader.
I’m also a sucker for terror in the cold. As evidenced by Ron Malfi’s Snow and Tim Lebbon’s “White,” brutal winter settings can help create a unique and suffocating dread, one that enshrouds the reader in its freezing embrace.
If either of the above paragraphs sounds enticing, have I got a book for you…
Dead of Winter (available in paperback or ebook) is Brian Moreland’s new, gripping entry into the field of historical horror, and if that doesn’t intrigue you, have I also mentioned that this novel is taut, suspenseful, bloody, and full of surprises?
Still not sold?
Well, read this interview. I think you’ll be making plans to journey back to 1870 very soon…
1. One of the things that makes Dead of Winter so special is how authentic it feels. What did you spend more time doing—researching the book or writing it? What kind of research did you do?
I’d say I spent most of my time writing and rewriting to capture the atmosphere and tension I was going for. I did spend countless hours reading history books about the Canadian fur trade and did a lot of research on the web. I also interviewed a descendent of the Ojibwa tribe to better understand the Native Canadian (First Nation) culture and customs, and she led me to a great book about the Ojibwa people. Lastly, to make my Jesuit priest Father Xavier as authentic as possible, I boned up on how to perform an exorcism through reading case studies on some contemporary exorcisms performed by priests in the present day. If you know someone who is possessed by a demon, I now know how to exorcise one. I believe what makes a book feel authentic is the details an author adds to the storytelling. And true history is full of fascinating details.
2. Not only does Dead of Winter feel like a slice of 1870 life in the Canadian wilderness, it’s also a rousing adventure/suspense thriller. What horror and/or suspense writers have influenced your style?
From Dean Koontz I learned how to tell a story at a break-neck pace and how to create loveable characters and sinister villains. His dark suspense thrillers also taught me how to mix genres. From Robert McCammon I learned the craft of writing horrific scenes with fast action and nail-biting suspense. Studying the works of H.P. Lovecraft taught me how to create a creepy atmosphere and dread from unseen things lurking in the dark. From Dan Brown, F. Paul Wilson, Dan Simmons, and James Rollins, I learned how to weave true historical events with a high-concept plot. Reading Richard Laymon novels taught me you can push the envelope with sex and violence, while taking the reader on a wild, rollercoaster ride. Clive Barker showed me monsters can have many layers and come from alternate dimensions. Lastly, I owe much of my craft of writing horror that goes for the throat and the heart from Stephen King. I highly recommend his book On Writing.
3. Inspector Tom Hatcher is a great protagonist. From what sources/inspirations did you draw when creating him?
Honestly, Inspector Hatcher evolved over many rewrites. He started out as a modern sheriff in Michigan, trying to solve a series of gruesome cannibal murders in a small town. Occasionally, I flashed back to 1870 to dramatize the mystery’s back story. When I decided to set my entire novel in Canada in 1870, I made Tom a British inspector from Montreal. I also gave him a fourteen-year-old son, Christopher, who is trying his best to prove that he’s man enough to do detective work. The more I put Tom into scenes that challenged him, the more I discovered his true character. Solving murders brought out his strengths as a detective. His alcoholism and mistakes as a father show his weaknesses. And having two women at the fur trading fort fall for Tom show his conflicts between being a gentleman and his human needs for love, sex, and the kind of nurturing that a man can find only in the arms of a woman. For me, a great protagonist doesn’t become three-dimensional right away. It’s only after writing them in multiple scenes with characters who either love them or antagonize them that my protagonists come to life. Out of all my novels and short stories, Tom Hatcher is one of my favorites.
4. The Cannery Cannibal is a stunning antagonist. Give us some insight into the creation of this ferocious villain.
Gustave Meraux, aka “the Cannery Cannibal” is a combination of real history and my twisted imagination. The more I read about the issues with cannibalism during the harsh winters of the 19th Century wilderness people, the more I wanted to come up with my own cannibal killer. Reading about the history of the fur trade led me to discover that a fur trading company, called the Northwest Company, had winter partners from Montreal. They were mostly French and Scottish. Every winter they lived in isolated forts and traded with the native fur trappers, and each spring they returned home to Montreal to sell their precious furs and live a wealthy lifestyle. That provided the backdrop for my fictional fort colony, Fort Pendleton. Another industry during that time was canneries canning soups, meat, and fruit preserves for these fur traders to take with them during the long winters. Canned goods also went on board ships that travel on long voyages. The French and British canneries competed for the lion’s share of the business. The more I read history books about cannibalism, the fur trade, and canneries, the more these ideas meshed in my mind for my villain–a cannibal who Inspector Tom Hatcher caught and put behind bars. A serial killer who is considered to be the craziest man in the insane asylum where he’s imprisoned at the beginning of the book.
I like to read about history and have my characters be born from what I discover. Reading about the real life Jack the Ripper made me ask the question, what if Montreal had their own version of Jack the Ripper? I could have made Gustave Meraux a serial killer who lives in the shadows of the city, but he became far more interesting to me when I wrote him to be a well-respected gentleman from the upper class–an heir to a family who had amassed a fortune from the canning business. I made him French Canadian in contrast to Inspector Hatcher being British. What makes the Cannery Cannibal different from the Ripper is Gustave abducts prostitutes, butchers them, and stores their meat in tin cans. He also worships an ancient demon, which gives Gustave Meraux a mission far darker than merely killing a few prostitutes.
5. On your blog you talk about kayaking, hiking, and travel. This sort of versatility is reflected in your writing, as well (mixing genres to create a rich, three-dimensional world). What are the benefits of reading outside the genre and experiencing life outside one’s writing cave?
After hours of working at a computer, I like to get out and reconnect with the real world. I love being out in nature and getting physical. Hiking and kayaking satisfy these needs. I also love to travel around the United States and visit other countries and meeting foreign people who see the world differently than I do. Every new culture I experience expands me as a person, and that can only help my writing be more versatile, as you say. When I’ve had my fill of the experiencing the real world through my five senses, I return to my writing cave and create fantasy worlds that others can enjoy. It’s fun to be able to jump between both worlds.
Thanks, everybody, for reading, and thank you to Brian for giving such great answers and for giving me nightmares about demonic possession.