Please Welcome to Cutis Anserina a man who knows his folklore...Phillip Hemplow
What was the catalyst for writing The Innsmouth Syndrome? What was the process like working to extend the legacy of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth?
The idea began brewing a long time ago, when I was studying microbiology. I found myself wondering what an epidemiologist would make of the Innsmouth look, and how they might explain it. The actual writing didn’t happen until I found myself between jobs, and needed something to fill the time. This was before I’d ever heard of self publishing, or indie publishing - and I knew the length made it pretty much useless to a traditional publisher - so after one half-hearted attempt to place it in a genre magazine I pretty much forgot about it. It wasn’t until I coincidentally came across some people talking about Kindle Direct online that it occurred to me to upload it.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to try to write something that would add some new ideas to the Innsmouth story. If anyone was ever likely to read Syndrome, it was going to be people who’d already read the complete works of HPL, and probably a lot of spun-off stories by other writers, too. It’s a story that’s been explored so thoroughly that injecting some new characters and some new threats was essential if I was going to hold the interest of, well, people like me. I also wanted to see if it was possible to shift the focus of the story off HPL’s preoccupation with miscegenation, and turn it somewhere else. Being British, I chose to try and invoke distaste based on snobbery and class prejudice, rather than racialism. The Innsmouth population in Syndrome is made up of poor, sub-working class people, because, while racism is widely condemned these days by anyone vaguely well-adjusted, for some reason it still seems to be acceptable to sneer at poverty. Turn on the TV today and you won’t have to surf too many channels before you find a fly-on-the-wall `documentary’ that invites you to mock the poor, or the ill-educated, or the unsophisticated. A few years ago, we had the phenomenon of Bumfights. So, I thought that it might be possible to hinge the horror of Innsmouth upon peoples’ fear of poverty. Especially during a global recession.
When writing Sarcophagus was there any concern in exploiting the Chernobyl tragedy for entertainment value?
It was a constant concern. I did a lot of research for Sarcophagus, and did a lot of very sobering reading about the disaster, and about the astonishing bravery and selflessness of the troops, scientists and workers in the aftermath. Sometimes plot ideas would occur (such as making the babushka who shows up in the middle of the story a ghost, or hinting that the lost souls of Chernobyl had been devoured by the entity at the heart of the story) that would have worked – that would probably have worked quite well – but would have been pretty tasteless. I felt it was important to be accurate too, insofar as possible. With Syndrome, I happily redesigned elements of the geography, the canon and anything else that got in my way. For Sarcophagus, I reflected the actuality as closely as I could. An American researcher was good enough to share some interior maps of the reactor shell (though I did have to get a little extemporaneous there, in some places), and I downloaded thousands of photographs of the site, taken over the last few decades, to try to make sure I got the details as accurate as I could. And the last words in the author’s note at the end of the book are dedicated to the sacrifices made by so many absurdly courageous people in the wake of the 1986 disaster; so that, hopefully, the reader can’t fail to take that message away with them.
How did you create Dr. Victoria Cox the protagonist of Sarcophagus?
I think that she evolved out of the role I needed her to fill. She had to be a well-qualified nuclear scientist, of a certain age and relationship status, so initially that was what defined her. Oddly, I think I modeled her more on some of the nurses I’ve known and worked with, than scientists. Possibly because I’ve seen nurses under stress more often than I have scientists!
Russian folklore plays a pivotal role in Sarcophagus. Was this something you had a background in or had to research?
I’m a huge folklore enthusiast, and have been since childhood. As a kid, I loved classical mythology – mainly for the monsters and swordfighting - and ghost stories. I could recite hundreds of ghost stories! These days I flatter myself that my interest is a little more sophisticated than that. People tend to think that folklore is a thing of the past, but you can read it in the tabloids every day. The themes have changed with the times, and the age of instant communication has driven it in strange new directions, but both historical and contemporary folklore are still a map of our fears, our prejudices and our psychology. Whether its flayed Viking skins nailed to church doors, bat creatures over Chernobyl, or asylum seekers eating swans, it’s still with us, and it’s still fascinating.
I knew some of the folklore I incorporated into Sarcophagus before I embarked on the project, but I learned a lot more about it in the process of writing. Czernobog and the Kaptar were already familiar, but some of the other elements and the historical background were new to me. As a writer (can I call myself that with only two books to my name?) of Lovecraftian fiction, folklore isn’t just intriguing, it’s incredibly useful. If you write a vampire story, or a werewolf story, or a Father Christmas story, you can ground it in a mass of received wisdom and shared understanding that helps the readers accept the more outré elements. Vampires may not be literally real, but they are literarily real. One reason the Lovecraft Mythos is so great to work with is that it fulfills a similar role – you can root your story in a vast body of preceding work. Folklore, though, stretches back even further, and can help you in the same way. Plus, as I say, it’s really damned cool.
H.P Lovecraft is a clear influence on your work. How did you come to read him, and why does his work resonate so much with you?
I think I first knew of him as an influence on other writers that I’d read, who all seemed to admire him. Then, as a teenager, I started to hear references to his stories in song lyrics and video games – probably still a route that brings a lot of readers to his work – and started to build up preconceptions about his Mythos. When I actually sat down to read it, I found that it was even better than I’d anticipated. I can still remember exactly where I was when I read At The Mountains Of Madness for the first time; and the sudden feeling of disorientation that came over me at the climax of The Shadow Out Of Time. I think what really stands out about Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction is the constant implication, beyond the slime and the monsters and the insanity, that mankind is doomed and without hope, and utterly dwarfed by the maleficent void that surrounds it. His primary weapons for provoking a reaction in the reader of those stories were space and time (and racism, at times, admittedly). When it works - and it frequently does if you’re reading him for the first time - the effect is amazing. He’s often compared to Poe, for some reason, but in a lot of ways they were polar opposites. Poe’s fiction looked inside people, while Lovecraft’s looks out, beyond them, as if they’re almost a distraction. If he’d lived longer, I can’t begin to imagine what he’d have been inspired to by the Holocaust, nuclear weaponry, or the space race.
What was the first truly scary novel you remember reading? What was your immediate reaction; to bury it in the closet and forget it, or hunt out similar stories?
Dracula! It scared the pants off me, and I loved it. My immediate reaction was to read it again, before it was due back at the library! (Personal Favorite as well)
Who are some current genre authors you are following?
I’m a big fan of Tim Curran. He’s one of the relatively few Mythos authors who - I think - really gets what Lovecraft was trying to do when he wrote. He tackles the same big themes, big ideas, and big landscapes, and writes some really decent set pieces. I tend not to read much fiction when I’m actively writing though, because I’ve caught it bleeding over into my own stuff. I am looking forward to reading Tim Reed’s Bakerloo Line Train on a journey I have to make next week, since I’ll be away from the keyboard for a few days.
Do you have any other projects summing down the proverbial pipeline you would like to share with us?
My current project is a bit of a departure, in that it’s not exactly a horror story. It’s a serial killer thriller, though it does have some rather surreal, Grand Guignol elements. It’s also going to be a full length novel. It’s an idea I’ve wanted to get to grips with for ages, so now I’m doing it. After that, there are (currently) a couple of more Lovecraftian stories I’d like to write - but I have a whole list of themes and plots I want to address. If I could give up the day job, I’d stand more of a chance of keeping up. As it is, the list only ever gets longer!