A Dialog Between Stephanie Feldman and Andy Davidson - Writing Essays Online



Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Dialog Between Stephanie Feldman and Andy Davidson

STEPHANIE FELDMAN’S Saturnalia and Andy Davidson’s The Hole Form are two very completely different horror novels — one is an occult thriller about secret societies clashing in a near-future Philadelphia; the opposite is a horror story a few Southern household attempting to flee abuse and confront their forebears’ sins. Each authors, although, discover that it’s unattainable to write down horror with out contemplating nature and place. Right here, the authors talk about how rural and concrete environments embody our fears, how Southern and Mid-Atlantic Gothic differ, and the way local weather change and the pandemic proceed to affect their work.


STEPHANIE FELDMAN: The Hole Form begins within the Nineteen Eighties, when Nellie Gardner learns that she’s inherited a Georgia turpentine property from her long-lost grandfather. Pondering it’s her ticket out of an abusive marriage, Nellie packs up her 11-year-old son, Max, and heads south. However once they arrive at Redfern Hill, Nellie and Max uncover their issues have solely simply begun. One thing evil is ready for them of their new home and the previous woods surrounding it, one thing born out of Nellie’s forebears’ sins in opposition to the land. I really like The Hole Form. On one hand, it’s a tense thriller, however it’s additionally an investigation into energy and capitalism and patriarchy, all embodied by monstrous nature.

ANDY DAVIDSON: Proper. And these are the exact same themes Saturnalia grapples with, regardless that your novel is ready in a fantastical, near-future Philadelphia. In Saturnalia, Nina can also be working from abusive males and energy buildings, and monsters that come up from highly effective individuals meddling with nature. Greater than working, although, she’s combating again in opposition to them! Solely as an alternative of previous decrepit forests, her story unfolds in opposition to the backdrop of an enormous winter solstice pageant, the place elite social golf equipment are looking for riches by way of alchemy, and, oh yeah, the local weather apocalypse is closing in! It’s a splendidly tense, breakneck-paced novel.

SF: We took such completely different paths, however each ended up within the thick of ecohorror.

AD: Man assaults nature, nature assaults again.

SF: However The Hole Form can also be an intensely private story, a few girl and her son simply attempting to outlive this horrible husband and father. How did you resolve to make use of nature and land to inform Nellie’s story?

AD: Within the South, the previous and the land are two sides of the identical coin. I grew up in pulpwood nation in Arkansas, the place each city was a paper-mill city, or a lumber-mill city, and each tree was slash pine — which meant the forests have been on a 20-year cycle of being grown and reduce, so complete swaths of the panorama have been consistently being razed. As we speak, I see the identical factor right here in Georgia. It’s a cycle of violence between trade and nature, one we’re all caught up in. And we will’t break away.

There’s one thing of that in Nellie’s plight: she’s certain up on this unhealthy marriage to a merciless man who can also be the daddy of her little one, and he or she’s wrestling with the concept her boy, Max, can be higher off with out his father. Can she break away from Wade Gardner’s grip? When she inherits a 1000-acre turpentine property in Georgia, she decides to make a run for it. All she needs is a spot of her personal, a spot to cover away and lift her son free from the terrors of her husband. However what she discovers is that turpentining has decimated a lot of the old-growth pines on the property, and so there’s this pure kinship Nellie feels with the land; each have been hollowed out.

SF: In returning to the woods, Nellie situates this story within the American Gothic custom. Tom Hilliard has noticed that the primary American literature was gothic literature, rooted in a Puritan concern of unfamiliar wilderness, and Bernice Murphy argues that up to date American narratives are haunted by the “wilderness-that-was” — persistent fears in regards to the panorama, nonetheless modified it might be. What are the fears and sins that persist in The Hole Form?

AD: Traditionally, there’s the unique sin of exploitation: “Man assaults nature.” Not removed from the place I stay in Georgia, the woods have been as soon as chockablock with longleaf pine. After the Civil Struggle, Northern lumber firms swept down and devoured up the land for pennies on the greenback, then stripped it of those nice 1000-year-old bushes, which introduced on a 50-year land struggle between the locals and the “carpetbaggers.” We’re speaking courtroom battles and revenge killings. Even at this time, previous households round right here keep in mind whose blood was spilled. So this nook of Georgia may be very a lot haunted by the “wilderness-that-was,” which, in fact, is partly why “nature assaults again” within the novel. The monster in horror is nearly all the time a metaphor, proper? Right here, it’s a metaphor for the results of man’s sins in opposition to the pure world.

As a younger lady, when Nellie’s on her grandfather’s land, she feels this instant connection to the woods. She falls in love with their thriller. Later in life, she’ll come to acknowledge that kinship — that she and the woods have been each wronged by males. However when she’s a child, she is aware of that Redfern Hill shouldn’t be dwelling, so she has to depart to search out herself. The irony, in fact, is that she gained’t really know herself till she’s returned, till she permits herself to face the previous — the sins of her grandfather.

In Southern fiction, these damaged, small-town worlds are the final word gothic trope, aren’t they? We depart solely to return.

SF: Philly people famously by no means depart, or don’t depart for lengthy. I lived in New York Metropolis for nearly 10 years, however I couldn’t break the spell, and located my method again.

AD: House exerts its personal inescapable gravity. To borrow Bernice Murphy’s method of placing it, we’re haunted by the home-that-was.

Not too long ago, I’ve been fascinated about how Southern fiction, basically, is fixated on place. We obsessively doc the place we keep in mind as dwelling and, in doing so, desperately hope to know ourselves.

However Saturnalia is decidedly not Southern, and that’s a part of your guide, too, the concept of returning to a spot that harmed you. That haunts you. But it surely’s the town, not the wilderness. So possibly that’s a much bigger impulse in gothic fiction, basically, to know the previous?

SF: Sure, like Nellie, my protagonist Nina is confronting her previous by exploring her dwelling, Philadelphia. The previous is all the time current within the metropolis, even after we ignore it — or attempt to. Saturnalia begins on Broad Road, which was designed in 1687 and has been the guts of Philadelphia ever since. My predominant character travels throughout the town in the midst of one night time, and I used to be deliberate in selecting the locations she visits. I needed them to signify Philadelphia’s historical past, and particularly class historical past.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says that city fears are all about different individuals: immigrants, the poor, and different, effectively, “others.” (There’s an implicit or assumed topic there: the rich WASPs are the frightened ones.) This variety threatens the order that the constructed setting represents, or is supposed to impose.

In Saturnalia, frequent knowledge is that the costly accommodations and members-only golf equipment are secure, whereas the general public streets are harmful; the college campus is secure, whereas the West Philadelphia neighborhood past is harmful; the Quaker worship home is secure, however Chinatown is harmful.

However actually, there isn’t a promise of security anyplace. Nina is aware of that. As a lady, she faces threats in each elite halls and darkish alleys — so long as there are individuals, or particularly males, who may prey on her. Which isn’t to say that each one ladies are powerless. A few of them are enjoying the system and succeeding — there are examples in each The Hole Form and Saturnalia.

AD: Nellie’s grandmother, Euphemia, turns her grief into energy and principally takes management of her husband’s turpentining property. Her standpoint, finally, is that males are fragile creatures whose ambitions break them. Euphemia is steely, resolved. She and Nellie draw from deep wells. Nina does too. I used to be questioning if you happen to might speak a bit of bit about the way you conceived her, as a personality? And her world? One of many issues I really like about Saturnalia is how the occult comes to carry a bizarre sway over humanity’s future, and Nina finds herself on the middle of that.

SF: Sure, the occult is one other method the characters attempt to acquire energy over the setting, which has grown precarious because the local weather has modified. I initially conceived of the story as a revenge quest, my very own bizarre Kill Invoice, however as I wrote, Nina turned extra of a examine in imposter syndrome. She was as soon as an formidable outsider; after we meet her, she’s simply an outsider, somebody who didn’t climb the ladder and has misplaced her confidence. As she confronts her highly effective former pals and the elite social golf equipment they run, she discovers a brand new sort of ambition. As an alternative of enjoying the sport, possibly she’s meant to take it down. Magical information is capital — particularly, the ability to hoard environmental sources in a time of accelerating shortage. Euphemia and Nina each acknowledge that, they usually should resolve how they wish to use their capital.

AD: Sure!

SF: I’d like to return to the connection between horror and place. Robert Tally coined the time period “topophrenia” to explain a relationship to position, or “place-consciousness,” that’s outlined by nervousness, unease, or disquiet. Does this idea resonate with you?

AD: It does. Most Southern fiction, I believe, embraces that notion readily. I’m pondering of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the place poverty and nature conspire in opposition to a household in rural Mississippi. Add a touch of the grotesque, à la Flannery O’Connor — the unusual, the ugly, the monstrous — and also you’re writing horror! Cormac McCarthy’s Baby of God, as an illustration, is each a Southern Gothic and a nightmarish horror novel, through which the Tennessee hills are haunted by a homeless, homicidal necrophiliac. (Even Faulkner, at occasions, included components of horror. In Sanctuary, Popeye scissored the heads off kittens!) After all, it’s not distinctive to Southern fiction, this grotesque or anxiety-ridden obsession with place. Take Stephen King: IT is as a lot a darkish historical past of small-town Maine as it’s a horror novel.

However yeah, that obsession with place, the notion that acquainted locations can breed monsters, that’s very a lot a cornerstone of each guide I write. In actual fact, I all the time begin with a setting. Normally I draw maps. I sketch out the world, analysis the flora, the fauna. If I can, I like to go to a spot. I would like the world to really feel actual to the reader. Recognizable. After which I flip it, so the acquainted accommodates the monstrous, the unseen, and now the world is hostile, harmful. Put some characters in peril and allow them to battle with that duality of place. That’s what a lot rural gothic fiction is about, proper? Place as a entice, a cage, a jail. As an alternative of ancestral stone castles on windswept moors, it’s a decrepit turpentine camp within the woods of Georgia, or a South Arkansas swamp, or a wide-open Texas desert.

SF: The South and New England have positively staked out their very own gothic subgenres — I’m right here attempting to carry it down for the Mid-Atlantic. We do have Poe, and Charles Brockden Brown …

AD: Shout-out to Wieland!

SF: That guide taught me a lot about writing! It’s set in Pennsylvania and helped me take into consideration how locations are haunted specifically methods. Over the past decade, my inventive work has drawn a lot from this area, not simply the bodily setting, however the historical past and folklore of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I set Saturnalia in Philly as a result of that’s the place I’m from, and the place I stay now, however I additionally love how it may be a sort of metonymy for American society, as the primary capital and residential to so most of the cultures and populations that also outline us.

However the bodily setting does matter, too. I meant for Saturnalia’s setting to be the close to future, with stronger impacts of local weather change, however as I wrote, the world caught as much as the guide in some ways. Whereas I used to be enhancing, a twister — exceptional on this area — touched down on our road, wrecking our home, many neighbors’ homes, and our faculty. (We’re secure and again dwelling now.) My fictional Philadelphia had been broken by a twister, however after our personal expertise, I made the storm a a lot larger a part of the story. I described the way it modified the town, however extra importantly, the way it modified the characters.

That’s what I consider after I consider topophrenia, or how geographers acknowledge the essentially social and psychological nature of place — writers have all the time recognized this. Our characters and locations outline each other. Nina’s Philadelphia — what she sees, hears, smells, but in addition what she notices, the place she goes, and what’s essential to her — shouldn’t be the identical as anybody else’s Philadelphia.

It’s a funny-not-funny factor, then, that I couldn’t revisit any of Saturnalia’s Philly areas within the closing revision and enhancing phases, as a result of the pandemic stored me at dwelling. I used to be a pair drafts in earlier than COVID-19 arrived, so it’s laborious to say the way it influenced the premise, however I did take lots of solace in my crowded fictional world of events and festivals throughout lockdown. You began writing after the pandemic started. How did it have an effect on The Hole Form, your course of, and your fascinated about place?

AD: I completed up the guide tour for my earlier novel, The Boatman’s Daughter, in early March 2020. Instantly after that, the nation began shutting down. I keep in mind the double whammy of listening to Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers on the drive to my final guide occasion in Arkansas, and on the way in which again to Georgia, I heard a satellite tv for pc DJ inform a narrative about her son, who requested: “Mother, will all the pieces be okay?” And her reply was, primarily, “I don’t know.” That spooked me. It nonetheless spooks me: 2020 was a second in historical past the place the predictions of apocalyptic fiction drew perilously near earth, like some planet-killing asteroid. For some time, I used to be studying greater than writing, attempting to take consolation in books. Early on, I reread The Talisman by King and the late, nice Peter Straub. Later that summer time, I wrote the primary draft of The Hole Form, and for the historic sections that came about through the influenza pandemic of 1918, I drew instantly (and weirdly) on the headlines of 2020. I hadn’t meant to even embrace the flu within the guide, however the timeline demanded it, so I did my analysis and realized a number of attention-grabbing info. Apparently, over 100 years in the past, parts of america confronted the identical cussed refusal to masks up — to not point out the insane, bogus theories that circulated in regards to the pandemic’s origins! It was an eerie parallel, but in addition oddly comforting. We have been idiots then. We’re idiots now. We survived then. Possibly we’ll survive this time, too?

Finally, the influenza pandemic makes up a really small portion of the guide, however like COVID-19, it turned the seed of everlasting change within the lives of those that survived it. The consequences of that political local weather are ubiquitous all around the South. Folks round right here didn’t fly flags earlier than 2020. Now, there’s a flag for each cracked ideology or bigoted viewpoint, they usually’re all flying sturdy, which makes me deeply ambivalent in regards to the place I stay, a spot I’ve lengthy beloved regardless of its failures and sins. It’s like I’m Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! “I don’t hate the South! I don’t hate the South!” I wish to write about that, and I don’t, ? Some days, I believe that’s all I ever write about. All I ever will write about: the horrors of dwelling.

SF: We write in regards to the previous to write down about at this time. In the long run, Saturnalia isn’t actually about an imagined future Philadelphia, however what it’s like for us now, to battle with the challenges we’re going through.

AD: The existential dilemma of the twenty first century is learn how to stay in a dying world, proper? Systemic corruption in energy buildings, the decimation of pure sources, pandemics, local weather change — our novels wrestle with all of those. We’ve talked an ideal deal about how, for us, it’s unattainable to write down horror with out fascinated about nature and place, however I ponder, too, if it’s simply unattainable lately to write down about nature and place with out telling a horror story? Actually, I didn’t got down to write an ecohorror novel after I began The Hole Form. I simply needed to inform a narrative a few girl and her son in a haunted home! But right here we’re, speaking about the entire of the earth as a crumbling Gothic construction!

SF: The world-that-was.

AD: The world-that-was.


Stephanie Feldman is the author of the debut novel The Angel of Losses, and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Who Will Speak for America? (2018), and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Catapult Magazine, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Andy Davidson is the Bram Stoker Award–nominated author of In the Valley of the Sun (2017) and The Boatman’s Daughter, which was listed among NPR’s Best Books of 2020, the New York Public Library’s Best Adult Books of the Year, and Library Journal’s Best Horror of 2020. Born and raised in Arkansas, he makes his home in Georgia with his wife and a bunch of cats.

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