Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diving In with Josh Malerman: New Novella out on Halloween-Day

Monday is Halloween and Josh Malerman’s newest book will be available via UK-based This Is Horror. I’ll tell you, I was a hundred pages in to A House at the Bottom of a Lake when I realized my right arm had crooked up over my face to grasp the left shoulder, the forearm muzzling my mouth; I blinked to de-bulge my eyes; I was alone and apparently self-conscious of exerting an audibly frightened yelp noise from my mouth.

Click here to pre-order this novella
And find more info here, via This Is Horror

Malerman’s latest follows-up 2014’s stark, nerve-shredding Bird Box, which had a simple yet brilliant narrative scheme forcing its protagonists to keep their eyes blindfolded or risk uncanny madness. Not to spoil anything, but while some can argue Bird Box being “post-apocalyptic,” it’s just as easy to deny those postulations with the mere fact that no one in this book can ever see the outside world again, unless they have an utter death wish. Bird Box was nominated for 2014’s Bram Stoker Award and won the This Is Horror award.

Now we dive in to A House at the Bottom of a Lake, part of This Is Horror’s annual Halloween’s Day Novella series. You can pre-order it here: 

Whereas Bird Box kept us mostly indoors with a strategic utilization of the “it’s scarier if you don’t see it” approach, House/Lake is entirely outdoors and draws a curtain of creepiness across the idylls of nature, trees, grass, shorelines, mountains, and yes, water…

James and Amelia are two painfully relatable 17-year-olds out on their first day, quaking with awkwardness and self-consciousness. Dinner and a movie would be too cliché, so why not borrow a canoe and take in the majesty of those two nearby lakes? Wait…when a mysterious canal appears to lead to a smaller third lake, the pair of would-be lovebirds spontaneously decide to say “yes” to everything… Sure, let’s scrape up James’ Uncle’s canoe by navigating a treacherously narrow tunnel, let’s go over and observe that strange road along the shore, let’s row over to that part of the lake and see if….WAIT… What is THAT? Down there? In the murky water? A roof? Windows? A Door? A porch, a pathway…shutters… IT’S A HOUSE! Yes. At the bottom of a lake… Should we investigate it, they ask? YES.

The pair’s unconventional courtship finds them bonding over a mantra of not asking how or why… As if that would deter them from exploring any further… But just because a house is under the water doesn’t mean it, also, can’t be just as haunted as its terrestrial counterparts. James and Amelia get some scuba gear to swim inside and explore this fully furnished house only to find… Oh, god, you don’t even want to know…

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A House at the Bottom of a Lake: Interview with Josh Malerman
"It’s cold down there. It’s dark, isolated, and everything you see is distorted..."

There's something refreshingly regressive about distinctively placing adult readers back to that oh-so-young age of 17. You focus on the awkwardness. You focus on being scared of spiders or noises. That's a scaredy-cat feeling that I think a lot of us forget once we're in our 20's and beyond... Dating, in itself, is scary, particularly at that age.
Josh Malerman:
Arrested development is a magnificent quality in an artist. Some of us keep our inner-teens chained up in a room nobody is allowed to look into, while others let him run loud about the house.  My teenager answers the door and sometimes doesn’t even call for me to come downstairs. When James and Amelia meet they’re at that sweet-spot, the moment in time when your personal scales of bravery and scared shitlessness are in a dead heat and won’t tip either way for many moons. James had to ask her out because he’d go nuts if he didn’t and Amelia had to say yes because she wasn’t living if she said no. So right from the start they’re balancing; worried how they’re coming off, worried whether or not they’re smart enough, funny enough, and open enough, too, to the big hidden options of living. My regrets in life are not for the things I have done, but things I haven’t. James and Amelia or on that same swing-set.

It made me wonder if you had the metaphor splash over you, of the lake's surface being the exterior of a person you've just met...and the strange house at the bottom of it, their subconscious, the unknowable, the emobidment of all the skeletons in their respective closet(s)...
Yep. That’s it alright. And while it’s easy enough to dive in, most people freak out at the sight of the submerged furnishings. And can you blame them? There are so many different mind-types out there... you wanna make sure you’re hanging with one you can swim with, yeah? I think early on with A House at the Bottom of a Lake I was aware of the two present layers: the house of horrors and the fresh love affair. I’d like to say it was a juggling act but really, horror and love go so well together, they danced themselves from page to page without much intrusion by me.

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Did you consider bringing back a sort of Grimm's Fairytale vibe? Hansel, Gretel, or sneaking into the Three Bears’ House with their porridge, as it were...? What was the root of this stories inspiration?
Malerman: The words ‘fairy tale’ can often send a horror reader running. Who wants frogs and magic horses? And yet, when we read these old platform stories we’re as turned on as we’re ever gonna get. Because a lot of them are legitimately scary. And so many of them are just brilliant ideas.
So there’s a duality there, of course, wanting and not wanting a fairy tale. When I recognized a slash of that color on my canvas I had to decide what to do with it. Use it? Spread it around? Contain it? Keep it like a signature, a little wink in the corner of an otherwise much darker story? I opted for not worrying about it too much either way. Meaning: I didn’t enhance that angle and I didn’t intentionally diminish it either. What could I do? I had two teenagers madly in love playing house at the bottom of a lake. Sometimes it felt like I was their chaperone, but the kind of chaperone who was off drinking a beer in the woods while they faced unspeakable horrors below.

My scare-levels rose at the sentence: "The tunnel makes for a slow getaway"
There’s certainly a sense of ‘staying put out there…’ Whether you think you should or not. Especially once the raft is tethered.

Let’s think about the idea of trespassing…under the water… And talk about the paranoia that strikes these kids, the anxiety of discovering this kind of secret…
Well, that’s teenage bravado right there. This place isn’t ours??? We might get caught and get busted??? Screw it, what’s the worst that can happen? Adults would work out the logistics, the consequences and fines, the what-ifs. But teenagers have a great supply of willful bliss. And you know, it works out most the time in their favor.

Some say that if you ask the Universe, the Universe will respond. Maybe it’s like that. If you think you can get away with the little things, you do. Like sneaking a pack of gum from the local store. What thieves we all were! Of course, it isn’t the local authorities or land owners James and Amelia needed to be conscious of. They were trespassing on much deeper ground. Neck deep. And the only thing capable of scaring them off the land didn’t necessarily want them to leave. Or did it?

Talk about how much harder it's getting to write horror or imagine marketable, buzz-building scenarios for a horror story... I love the line James agrees to that seems to strike at the new/old/new formula for finding good horror: "No how's or whys."
Well this goes back to the silly thing people say when they say they’re more afraid of ‘fact’ than they are of fiction. The trick (one trick) with horror is to leave those whys and hows in the car. Or just throw them away completely. If it’s the unknown that scares us so deeply, and if it’s true that some of us want to be scared, then what does an explanation do other than remove the scare entirely?

Now, in the case of James and Amelia, they decided early on not to ask the big questions because they didn’t want the house of cards to fall to the tabletop in a heap. Just like love, you know. You start asking yourself who is she and who am I and, shit, the whole thing rises to the sky in a swarm of ash with the snap of two fingers. Presto. Gone. You gotta be careful, huh? Recently, at a book-fair in Haverhill, MA, a brilliant woman in the audience suggested that us modern agers are afraid of the unknown because there’s nothing we can’t look up online!

Without giving anything away, we should just ruminate on how inexplicably creepy it can feel being inside an empty house, even ones’ own house…But when you closed your eyes during a break of paragraphs while writing this, what scared YOU the most?
The natural uncanniness of the setting. It’s cold down there. It’s dark, isolated, and everything you see is distorted by unseen waves. You only get the house in pieces, as the flashlight allows you. And there’s only one door. One in and out. Couple all that with the unmistakable edginess of being in somebody else’s house when they’re not home, and you’ve got an awfully freaky place to be.

Let’s not forget that  most 17 year olds might just opt to take a picture of the house and post it to instagram and leave…? Or, worse, that most 17 year olds wouldn't be out in the great outdoors? Talk about that 80's outdoorsy Michigan upbringing of yours and how that informed this books tacit theme of unquestioned adventurousness…
I think the love side of things acted as a bubble in this way. It’s almost as if the young love protected the house because it asked the two teens not to tell anyone of its existence. And I do think growing up in Michigan did something for me here. Every state has its natural wonders, but Michigan does seem particularly gifted. Woods, dunes, beaches, big cities, small towns, the U.P. All my life I’ve been coming up with stories that could take place at each of these locales. I remember walking around summer camp just counting the short stories I had to write. ‘There’s the woods-one. There’s the lake-one.’ As if the story couldn’t take place in both. Haha

I can't help but feel this book is very much about the unconscious mind, deep psychological shit…beneath the symbolic waves and currents, submerged fears and anxieties. Do we even know when we are scared, at all, until it's too late?
I do think the book suddenly closes its doors on you. Not that there’s a twist or some kind of sudden deep dark surprise, but, like love, when you’re in deep you’re in deep… and you don’t realize how far down you’ve sunk till you look up and the surface looks like a kite in a high sky and just as impossible to touch.

You’ve got quite a rhythm with your sentences here. It's like a play or a radio serial where the tempo of the suspense picks up. It lends itself so well to read-aloud narration. Henry James, just saying, can thread-on-and-thread-on…but you keep these sentences to 9 words tops, sometimes. Talk about the writer's voice as a musical instrument, something that propels, something that has melody, RESTS, harsh staccatos... Talk about your influences in terms of voice.
There’s no doubt that I played to a different drummer with A House at the Bottom of a Lake than I did with (2014)’s Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel (out May, 2017). I’ve been noticing a thing recently with the books I’ve been reading, where the scariest moments just kinda... come. There is no “and then.” There is no “Look out!” The scare isn’t there and, presto, it’s there. And it works particularly well for Amelia and James because they’re already in a two-fold dream here: love and horror. Their worlds are so distorted, so different from what they were only a few months back, that how could they even recognize a scare until it was already upon them? And the drummer behind this one, whatever rhythm I fell into, seemed to push and pull along with them. He seemed to, as you said, ‘rest’ when they rested. But sometimes he’d come back a hair early, hit the crash, and Amelia and James would look up and... well, maybe it was too late. They were already in love. They were already in horror.

These kids become fixated… And I thought, Frankenstein, Re-Animator, Fright Night, so much of horror is about characters who are fixated on something, a mystery, a monster, a goal, a secret… Fixation!
I hadn’t thought of that myself but yeah, there’s no doubt is there? Dozens of books come to mind. Of course you’ve got the mad scientist variety of fixation (poor Henry Jekyll) but there are so many others. Fixation on a girl, a guy, a house, eternal life, a new job, a new face, a new identity, a new reputation, the future, the past, machines, nature, the unknown, the half-known, proof, notoriety, love. And the artist has his/her own fixations to manage. Like finishing works of art.
I believe these momentums, an album, a book, are soul-balm for the artist. A House at the Bottom of a Lake is a soul-drop for me, the best medicine I’ve ever had. And maybe that’s where the fixations of so many characters comes from: the obsessions of the writers themselves. Of course we all know how out of hand fixations can get. And when they do, you’ve lost control. There are few things scarier than losing control. Because if you aren’t driving this scooter... who the hell is?

What is this book really about? Isn't just about falling in love? The madness of love, the sometimes impermanence of it all? What if it's all wax? What if you ask: "how?"
I think it’d be silly of me to try to add anything to the perfect question you just asked: What if it’s all wax?

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