Author Christopher Buehlman recently published his first novel, the horror story Those Across the River. Previously an author of poetry and drama, this is his first novel. Buehlman has a second career playing “Christophe the Insultor” at Renaissance Faires.
In Those Across the River, historian Frank and teacher Dora attempt a new start after the scandal of their affair and her divorce. They end up in the small Georgia town of Whitbrow. Frank and Dora soon discover that Whitbrow has some strange traditions, notably the monthly release of two pigs into the woods across the river, where no one goes.
After writing poetry and plays, you’ve published your first novel. What attracted you to horror as a genre?
I always loved horror. And comedy. My childhood reading consisted of Stephen King, Mad Magazine and Eerie comics, so it’s little wonder I tap both kegs when I write. Poetry tends to come out in the pauses; short flings in between commitments.
One obvious advantage to setting the novel during the days of the Great Depression was the length of time that had passed since the Civil War. The days of slavery were far enough past to be historical, yet close enough to still be affecting people’s lives. What were some other advantages (or disadvantages) to using that particular historical setting?
The 1930s were the last recognizably modern years in which you could take a town like Whitbrow and really cut it off. I wanted it to have to live or die on its own, without the prospect of the FBI or National guard rolling in to sort things out.
Can you tell me a little about religion in the story? As I mentioned above, Whitbrow has Christianized their pig sacrifices to the extent that the preacher is one of the strongest voices for maintaining the tradition. How does Frank’s disbelief work against him?
Frank is part of the ‘lost generation,’ a very secular individual to start with, confirmed in it by his ghastly experiences in France. I’m not sure this agnosticism works against him; if anything, it leads him to a place of confrontation and questioning rather than resignation. Whether he can win the conflict with acceptable losses or not, I think we like him better than the ones who are willing to roll over. He’ll try not to fight of course, but he won’t roll over.
A recurring theme in horror is ignorance vs. knowledge. Generally, ignorance is bliss, and the story becomes a battle between those who wish to remain ignorant and those (usually one unfortunate hero) who must know the truth, no matter what the price. How do you see this theme working itself out in the book? Is Frank that archetypal quester for truth? Or is he blundering around stupidly? Or somewhere in the middle?
Somewhere in the middle. He wants to know, but he doesn’t want to pay too high a price. When he is drawn into conflict, it isn’t a matter of high-minded idealism so much as a sense of duty. He fights not for truth, but in order to be able to live with himself — he doesn’t want to be someone who runs away, so he makes himself throw in.
I think I could make the argument that horror is closer than anything else we have right now to classical tragedy. In this context, what is Frank’s tragic flaw? How do you feel about the horror-tragedy comparison?
I think you’re right on with your comparison. Perhaps the aforementioned sense of duty is Frank’s chronic undoing. He went to fight in the trenches because he, like so many others, wanted to do the right thing. He faces the horror in the woods because it has already begun preying on his adopted community — he might well have picked up camp and gone North again, and it would have been wise to do so. But I like Frank because he doesn’t always do what’s wise. He’s no action-hero, but he is a guy you can count on to do his best when things get rough, even if it costs him dearly.
I’m wondering about Dora as a character. During some parts of the book, she comes across as a fully-realized individual, with her own set of motivations, desires, and fears apart from Frank’s. Yet at other times, she appears to be merely a victim. Does Dora get to have a tragic flaw (i.e. would she be considered the “heroine” of the novel), or is her fate merely part of Frank’s ultimate punishment?
Frank is the protagonist, and Dora is, for the purposes of this narrative, caught in his story in the same way that Eurydice is caught up in the story of Orpheus. I think that your observation that she comes across alternately as a self-actualized person and at other times a victim is true for many of us. I wouldn’t necessarily assign her a ‘tragic flaw’ in the Greek sense; if she has a tragic flaw, it’s that she’s a sensualist in a time that hasn’t given women full license to inhabit that role. Eudora is a rich girl who walked away from privilege. She wears her hair in the bob favored during the more open 1920s, and we sense that she wishes she had gotten to taste adulthood then instead of during the beaten-down 1930s. She feels guilt (again, largely informed by societal norms), but this doesn’t prevent her from enjoying life. And she is deeply in love with Frank, even if it isn’t clear that she is capable of being sexually loyal to one partner indefinitely.
The town of Whitbrow has ritualized the sending of the pigs in a way that’s reminiscent of the action in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In fact, I can imagine you asking, “What would have happened had Jackson’s townspeople resisted their lottery?” and going from there. Was “The Lottery” an influence for the book? What other conscious influences were you playing off?
As alluded to before, Greek myth had a great deal to do with this story — the muscle and skin of Those Across the River rests on a mythic skeleton. After I finished the first draft, I realized that ‘Salem’s Lot was an influence as well; both novels involve small towns confronting supernatural predation and slowly unraveling under pressure. You’ve got a keen ear, though — Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House might just be the best horror novel ever written.
Switching to the personal for a moment… how did you become Christophe the Insultor? Have I seen you at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival?
Yep, that’s me. I was asked to run the stocks (pillories) at the Bay Area renaissance festival in 1989. I was 20 years old. People would give me a dollar to humiliate their victim in the stocks — my predecessors had largely used props, and it was a photo opportunity as much as anything else. But that wasn’t enough for me — I started talking to my locked-up victims, telling them (absurdly) what wretched creatures they were and listing their faults for the amusement of onlookers. That was the genesis. Over time it mutated into a lane act independent of the stocks, and then into a stage act that still tours the festival circuit.
There has to be some relationship between a person who can invent creative insults and a horror writer. How would you explain it?
“All comedy has a victim” the man said. I think that’s true. I think that horror and comedy are actually very close cousins; we’re horrified when our friend falls down the cliff, but we laugh when he gets up swearing. I think laughter is a collective primate expression of relief; short-circuited horror, if you like. Of course, this theory should not be mistaken for science — these are just my own musings. In any event, I’ll probably alternate between horror and comedy for the reminder of my writing career — I like to provoke a physical reaction in the reader (or listener), because that’s what I want done to me.
Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions, and kudos on the graphic with the girl leading the pigs. I love it!Powered by Sidelines