I’m so incredibly excited to have L. Andrew Cooper here on my blog again. We did a horror panel together at Fandom Fest this summer, and while it was smaller than I would have liked, we got a chance to really talk about horror: old vs. new, patterns, gender differences…pretty much everything. It was then that I knew that I wanted this guy back on my blog, because he really knows his stuff. He’s one of the few that I’ll agree to have the argument about extreme horror with, mostly because he can back up his arguments well and give a lot of historically-influenced examples, and not rely on modern trends. Horror writers and horror fans, this is a guy to listen to.
Not only that, but when he mentioned his new book, Descending Lines, and I read a little about it on his website…wow. Just wow. I cannot wait for this book. This is going to be a good one, fear fans, and today we’re going to spend a long time talking to him all about it.
When Megan met Carter Anderson at Harvard, their college romance took a mystical turn thanks to The Alchemy of Will. This book by Dr. Allen Fincher gave them the power to do almost anything, but with disastrous results. Years later, their six-year-old daughter, Caitlin, is dying a slow death from bone cancer. Dr. Fincher’s book offers them a cure: they can save the life of their first-born by sacrificing the life of their second. But Megan and Carter don’t have a second-born… yet. Only half-convinced, Megan, confined to their New York apartment, begins nine months of hell, and she and Carter enter a spiral that consumes more lives than they could have ever conceived. Ranging from domestic terror to all-out supernatural horror that flecks the American east coast with mangled bodies, Descending Lines takes a gut-wrenching question–how far would you go to save your child?–and turns it into a fast-paced journey to places where even nightmares fear to tread. Descending Lines: The only way out is down.
SJ: So to start, tell everyone a little about yourself to re-acquaint us with you and your work!
LAC: Horror is just one way of making sense of the universe: it lets me transform whatever twists my nerves—life and death and politics and philosophy and whatever—into a narrative that can raise hairs and turn pages. Horror is also one way of making sense of my universe. I’m a guy who went from being a public school kid in Georgia to being a scholarship kid at Harvard studying all things literary, and then I kept studying literature and a little bit of film at Princeton, and then I taught writing for awhile in California, and then I did research on writing and technical communication while teaching at Georgia Tech, where I really started getting into film, and now I’m a film professor at the University of Louisville, with two academic books and several articles under my belt. From one perspective, I’ve just been wandering around trying and mostly failing to turn my own life into a coherent narrative. But from another perspective, horror is my coherent narrative, because horror is what got me reading, which is what got me to study literature in college, which is why I specialized in horror in grad school, and then I focused on the horror film, and I also write horror fiction. Descending Lines is my second published horror novel, after last year’s Burning the Middle Ground. But I recall starting a horror novel in the fifth grade about a spirit that seemed to cause spontaneous combustion. Like I said, for me, horror = sense. And since horror is what I know, readers can trust that I draw on a lifelong link to the genre in order to fine-tune details that play on people’s nerves and tease their imaginations.
SJ: I have to admit, perusing your site, I feel like there’s no way I’ll ever know as much about horror as you – you truly give me a Wayne’s World ‘We’re not Worthy’ moment. Where did this fascination begin for you and how did it develop?
LAC: My mom likes to talk about how I would dash merrily into the room every time The Count’s theme music would play to introduce him on Sesame Street. I honestly don’t remember a time before being fascinated with horror. I remember the years before I could handle it. Since I tell the story of how Freddy Krueger cured me of night terrors in my book Gothic Realities, I’ll tell you about the silly little movie that gave me the worst month of nightmares of my life: some idiot at the video store had put a PG sticker on X-tro, and to appease their eight-year-old who never shut up about wanting to watch horror movies, my parents rented the tape. The film is laughable now, but my eight-year-old brain was particularly susceptible to a very explicit storyline of an alien-replaced father menacing his son (among others). During the resulting month of nightmares, I recall sleepwalking, a kind of hallucinatory lucid dreaming. The imagery was of a sort I have yet to describe. How did the fascination develop? Through many a fine phase, too many to detail here.
SJ: Let’s talk a little bit about your first fiction book, Burning the Middle Ground. Tell us a little bit what it’s about, and your experience writing it. Was writing fiction a challenge or some sort of relief after your experience in nonfiction?
LAC: Burning the Middle Ground is about the fictional small town of Kenning, Georgia, where a New York journalist, Ronald, has arrived to write a book about a tragedy still haunting the town: a ten-year old girl shot her parents before turning the gun on herself right in front of her brother, Brian. Ronald discovers a division in the town between First Church, run by Reverend Michael Cox, and the under-construction New Church, run by Jeanne Harper. Soon Ronald, Jeanne, Brian, and a few others find themselves banding together against Reverend Cox and a supernatural conspiracy that would take over the town and possibly reach much farther. The book isn’t shy about having some political overtones, but it doesn’t really have any agenda other than giving readers a good blend of makes-you-tense scares with churns-your-guts scares and makes-you-think scares.
As for writing it, I had much more training in writing nonfiction, and I started publishing nonfiction first, but I’ve always written fiction, so the transition was more to fiction publishing than to fiction writing. That transition has been interesting, both because it offers so many more opportunities for impartial feedback (reviews and the like) and because it forces me to see the creative work more from the outside, more in terms of my actual audience’s values than some fantasy audience’s values. The effect will shape the work I do in the future, of course, but it also gives me new understanding of the work I’ve already done.
SJ: You have a new book, Descending Lines, slated for a Halloween release. Just reading the synopsis you sent me made me squirm. This sounds like all sorts of horror! Not only do you have some really dark emotional and psychological material here, but it sounds like you’re delving into extreme territory, as well. What was it that made you want to dive into this kind of territory? Did you ever feel like you were pushing your limits or getting out of your comfort zone writing this, or was there a sort of twisted freedom exploring Megan and Carter’s predicament and the burdens they face?
LAC: My novels tend to brew a long time in my head before I finally write them down, and like I said, my method is more or less to find a way to channel everything that’s bothering me into a story. So here’s a story about a couple who are in an impossible situation, watching their daughter die of cancer, knowing they can save her, but knowing the price of saving her is to have another baby and sacrifice it immediately upon delivery. So there’s a solution—but is it worse than the problem? Can any problem be worse than being forced to watch your own child, the child you know, die? The impossibility of their situation and the chain of events that it sets off (which gets much wilder and bloodier than the initial scenario suggests) reflects feelings I was having in my own life about being trapped in an impossible situation, also while in a deep depression, which I tried to convey through Megan in particular. Every decision is the wrong one, so characters move inevitably downward. There is some twisted freedom in writing the most violent scenes—in breaking some of the particular taboos I break, and oh boy, there’s a list—but mostly the freedom is in using a dark supernatural story to convey a very real dark feeling. For the same reason, in my unpublished work, I’ve written horror as extreme in its combination of physical and psychological violence as anything I’ve ever read. As long as I have willing publishers, I can see shades of that creeping into the work I take public later.
SJ: Is this a follow up to Burning the Middle Ground, or more of its own thing? What links the two books, if anything, and what really separates them?
LAC: Each stands alone, but they’re linked by the writings of Dr. Allen Fincher, whose The Alchemy of Will is the basis of supernatural events in both of my novels and in quite a few unpublished short stories. The first Fincher story is available on my website (http://landrewcooper.com/fiction/the-fate-of-dr-fincher/). Other short stories I might publish individually or collect at some point in the not-so-distant future. The Fincherverse (so dubbed by friends under the influence of the Whedonverse) was born in my brain circa 2001-2002. Descending Lines and a trilogy beginning with Burning the Middle Ground started then. Chronologically, I actually drafted most of Descending Lines first. Recently, I was amused to see that despite years of evolution, an allusion to Burning the Middle Ground, an allusion written before that novel actually existed, is still fully intact in the final version of Descending Lines. Likewise, some topics lightly grazed in Burning the Middle Ground get fuller attention in Descending Lines. But you don’t have to read one to understand the other. I’m intentionally vague about the chronology, but between you, me, and whoever’s reading, the events in Descending Lines occur prior to the present-day storyline of Burning the Middle Ground. Though this point is currently unimportant to readers of either book, it may become important, as surviving characters from both books are likely to meet later on in The Last World War series (of which Burning the Middle Ground is Book One).
SJ: On your website, you talk about the Gothic feelings of New York City and the heaviness you felt in the city after 9/11 and how this added to the emotions that contributed to the book. Can you explain and expand that line of thought?
LAC: Gosh, I should have guessed that I was committing myself to the overshare with this book! Forgive me, dear readers, for such indulgence. Okay, so the bottom line is that the unhappiest time of my life was spent in New Jersey, and since a friend I think of as family was a train ride to New York away, I looked forward to the weekends when I could go up and see her. The trouble was, when I left my monastic lifestyle in Princeton, I emerged from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, clogged with humans, buildings so high that I was never quite sure I really was outside, and I’d seemed to move from one cloister to another. And then the apartments, even the expensive ones, were so small! As a Southerner, I have always felt alien in Manhattan, where concrete extends in all dimensions, not bothering with the illusion of escape, whereas in Atlanta and other Southern cities we at least force gaps for sunlight and break up the sidewalks with trees.
Gradually, though, I began to understand that, though not for me, the endless inside that is much of Manhattan is itself a legitimate lifestyle: a lot of people in Manhattan live as if the city were an extension of their homes, the restaurants their kitchens, the corner stores their pantries. So while I felt that New York was already claustrophobia within claustrophobia, I at least understood it as a giant home for millions of people. And then 9/11. I keep coming back to the smell… I feel I shouldn’t say why because I’m a horror writer, and therefore saying it means sensationalizing it, and that’s unacceptable… but it’s the truth, so, knowing the smell was offices, homes, and—was it really? it had to be—the dead… well, it kind of makes the city haunted, doesn’t it? And if the city is your house, then suddenly, it’s a haunted house. So here’s Megan, pregnant, trapped in her horrible situation, and she’s hiding her pregnancy because no one can ever know the baby existed, so she’s trapped in her small haunted apartment in the haunted house-city. Outside is forbidden for her, tainted, like the world itself was tainted by the smell and by fear after 9/11. In a pretty grandiose way, then, I guess I identified my own f-ed up mindset with the mindset of the city, and I gave that melded mindset to Megan. Also, I have to admit, there are some scenes in the second half of the novel that could only happen in New York. I needed mass chaos of a sort that only the Big Apple can provide.
SJ: You also talk about all the social issues that went through your head while developing the story of Descending Lines. Would you call this title a metaphor or allegory of things that are going on in the world today, or are you letting things like abortion, stem cell research, organ harvesting, and infanticide as population control be a starting point or inspiration for you to add the paranormal plot elements to?
LAC: Allegory is more ambitious than what I’m trying to do here. Metaphors? Sure. Lots of things are metaphors. But I think readers can get through without having to think too hard about symbolism and metaphor. Figurative elements are ways to enhance storytelling, but you can still dig the story without tuning in to that particular enhancement. As for starting points and inspirations, for me that’s really a chicken-egg question, at least in some respects. Parts of Carter’s storyline that show up in the second half of the novel came to me first, in a dream, actually, so that was a starting point. And then that met up with a need to write through experiences I had with close friends working through emotional responses to having had abortions. Those stories literally got married, merged into the Fincherverse, and the narrative began to unfold.
The better I got to know the implications of what Megan and Carter are contemplating, the more I began to think about stem cell research, organ harvesting, and so on. Those issues, in turn, became aspects of the story, either in characters’ conversations or in more (or less?) subtle ways indicated by a character’s behaviors. It’s funny. Today I got into a conversation with someone about the premise of the book, which she found hard to believe and chalked it up to not liking supernatural horror. I explained that there are documented cases of real people having real babies in order to use their organs for the sick kids they already have. In a way, the supernatural makes a bitter pill easier to swallow by making it seem more fictitious. In another, the supernatural makes it possible to go beyond commentary. Just saying “Wow people suck” gets really boring, but what else can you say about the real-life story? In fiction, I can bend the situation in ways that test borderlines, the paths walked by the truest horrors. And then we can talk about the horrors people do safely, as if they were fictions.
SJ: A lot of the plot elements in this title have to deal with having children and what Megan goes through with her knowledge of alchemy. Alchemy first – how much research did you have to do to make that a believable plot point?
LAC: To clarify, Megan and Carter know almost nothing about alchemy. They have a copy of The Alchemy of Will, which scenes in a backstory timeline explain is a book that’s less about the traditional goals of alchemy than about transformations of matter and energy catalyzed by the human mind, transformations activated by rituals that the book’s author, Dr. Fincher, has compiled through global anthropological study. Alchemy itself, when it worked, did because its ritualistic basis tapped into the essence of will necessary to accomplish supernatural feats.
SJ: With the rest, as a guy, what made you want to delve into what could be construed as “women’s social issues” and really get into those? Was it hard to get into Megan’s mindset since she’s dealing with some really intense decisions? Is there any anxiety on how readers are going to take those plot elements?
LAC: The first time I got to teach a class on horror, I was the teaching assistant for a fairly famous professor. I was assigned the lecture on lesbian vampires, and as I was preparing, I freaked out, called her, and explained that I couldn’t possibly do the lecture because I wasn’t a lesbian or even a woman. The professor didn’t take the easy route (“you’re not a vampire either”) but instead said that one type of authority comes from inhabiting a position and another type of authority comes from being outside that position. So yeah, I’m not a woman, and I’ll never know what it’s like to give birth, so for that I had to study What to Expect When You’re Expecting and a few others every day while I was writing and consult friends and family who’d given birth about whether certain scenarios would be credible. And maybe I do get some advantage from being able to see Megan from the outside, too, because I think I’m more sympathetic to her than a lot of female readers are, and I think that’s because women read her and want to imagine that in her situation somehow they’d do something better.
As for Megan’s mindset, no, she wasn’t hard to capture at all. If I take as a given that she makes a couple of decisions that I wouldn’t make, she does exactly what I’d do in her circumstances (if I were capable of being in her circumstances). Do I have anxiety as a guy writing from the perspective of a woman dealing with a situation that only a woman could face? Yes. But for whatever reason, maybe it’s the gay thing, I empathize more readily with women, and I enjoy writing them more. Women’s social issues are human social issues. If men aren’t invested in women’s concerns, the planet is doomed.
SJ: You’ve mentioned that this title gets dark, so much so that you warned your publisher why they may not to publish it when you pitched it. Was delving into this sort of territory hard? What made you want to go there? Was it important that those graphic and twisted elements and dark emotional territory be included in the story (ie. Do you see these as necessary plot elements or genre contributions, or more as extreme horror icing?)
LAC: I am a strong advocate of extreme aesthetics, and to me that means more than zombie splatter gore. If horror artists can stretch the limits of human experience by pressing the boundaries of representation, stretching them by combining physically extreme description with psychologically extreme torment, then we have the capacity to breach new territory, and that’s something I’m very interested in doing. Have I done that here? No… maybe I come close… okay I hope maybe once or twice. But mostly I think it has to be a collective push among horror writers. So yeah, I think they’re necessary genre contributions, and that desire for the genre’s direction combines nicely with my dark personal issues. As for my warning to the publisher, horror readers seem to divide among those who like the far out, mind-bending stuff and those who just want a pleasant little chill before bedtime. I just wanted to make clear that the pleasant little chill crowd will not likely be happy with this one.
SJ: Why will horror fans love this book? What will people take away from reading it?
LAC: A true horror fan likes a story that stays with you, that seeps into your mind and lingers there, and this one does that. Readers will enjoy the tense build-up between Megan and Carter during the pregnancy, the developing supernatural elements, and then the crazy turns of the narrative in the second half. Readers will at least take away a good time, and perhaps they’ll also come away with more varied perspectives on some of the real-life issues hidden within the nightmares.
SJ: And, finally, since it’s that time of year…Why horror? What makes you love it, want to read it, want to write it? What makes genre that potentially encompasses the worst people can think of or offer so attractive? Why is this genre necessary if it involves so much “bad”?
LAC: You know those skeletons hanging in people’s windows on Halloween? That’s horror. Horror is naked. Horror is honest. Horror is humanity stripped of its pretense to civilization and exposed as stilted, fragile fears. The skeleton never appears alone. Other elements appear in the story. And those elements tell more about us. But they all point back to the skeleton. I love horror because of the honesty and humility of the skeleton. What’s the good of having skin if you don’t even think about your bones?
SJ: I totally lied – bonus question!!! What are the horror titles that really influenced you that people should read? What are the titles (or subgenres, tropes, etc) that horror fans really should know that they may not be familiar with?
LAC: I have to get professor-y on this one. I think all my horror obsessions connect to the three pillars of 1790s horror, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, The Monk by Matthew “Monk” Lewis, and Caleb Williams by William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s dad). Ann Radcliffe provided the classic Gothic formula of women trapped in castles menaced by powerful men. Monk Lewis gave us ecclesiastical corruption as a vehicle for telling stories of a variety of nasty kinds that draw on various folks traditions; he often gets credit for inaugurating the gorehound tradition. William Godwin crafted a suspenseful narrative of political intrigue that is a model of conspiracy horror. I draw on all three of these novels, and the traditions they started, in both of my novels, in varying degrees. When people think about “classic” horror, they usually think of Frankenstein and Dracula, and those are great books, but other than the monsters themselves, the narrative mechanics still operate according to rules set by their eighteenth-century forebears. Food for thought.