|Black Bottle: An Interview with Anthony Huso|
|conducted by Dave Truesdale|
When Tor Books was kind enough to send Anthony Huso's new novel Black Bottle unbidden, I groaned. I thought it would be just "another" fantasy novel. I couldn't have been more wrong. I found it to be one of the most unusual, intriguing, well-written fantasy excursions I had encountered in many years. I wanted to get in touch with the author and get to know a little about the creator of such an unusual work. The result is the part review, part interview below.
The Last Page was published in August of 2010 and was your first novel, of which Black Bottle is the conclusion. We follow several important characters through quite a few years and the story arc is complicated, with several plotlines, both personal and external, each impacting the other. For those who may not have read The Last Page but who might wish to pick up Black Bottle, would you mind setting the stage for what they will encounter?
Sure. In The Last Page you get to see a younger version of the two main characters from Black Bottle, namely Caliph and Sena. Their story begins at a straight-laced college. It's all very sinister and oppressive since the institution teaches holomorphy, which is a kind of blood-math. Holomorphy is essentially pseudo-science/sorcery of Lovecraftian bent. Caliph and Sena each have unpleasant histories with this discipline, Caliph by way of his creepy uncle Nathaniel (now deceased) and Sena through the witch coven that raised her.
Caliph and Sena have disparate and mostly vague plans for the future. This results in a collision of motives with each one more or less using the other. Their whole relationship gets off on the wrong foot and by the time diplomas are handed out, it's a perfectly dysfunctional affair.
Though they split up, lust, politics and the stirrings of possibly genuine affection draw Caliph and Sena together again as the power couple at the center of Isca City.
This sets the stage for Black Bottle. [Spoilers ahead] Sena is obsessed with opening a forbidden book of power that's been lost for decades while Caliph is busy fending off a challenger to his reign as High King. Civil war ensues. The rumor that Sena might have found and opened the book gets 'round and various clandestine circles and powerful nations nose in on the conflict taking place in Caliph's tiny backwater country.
The fallout is that Caliph winds up getting killed in battle. His body is brought back to Isca for burial. Sena, having opened the book and ended the war by luring the attention of powerful netherworld entities to the battlefield, winds up making a spectacle at the funeral and brings Caliph back to life.
While the papers spin the event as a terrible political ploy designed to fortify Caliph's reign with claims of false divinity or god-like power, others believe the account. A cult forms around Sena and begins worshiping her.
This is essentially the end of The Last Page and the point where Black Bottle picks up.
But all of this is immeasurably enhanced and brought to vivid life by the style of language you've chosen, the sort some have called the "high language" used in numerous fantasies such as that Tolkien employed, or even that in some of Jack Vance's work, not to mention reminiscent of the language of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series.
The combination of either made-up or archaic forms of esoteric words and the choice of high language go hand in hand to create an entirely macabre and different, strange world for the reader. Add to this that Black Bottle is really the story of Sena and Caliph, tortured by their sometimes sexual lusts, their convoluted pasts, and their uncertain futures as their world is about to crumble around them, depending on what the secret of the Cisrym Ta reveals -- that I have to ask what your conceptual process was in determining how you came to settle on the language and the overall intricate creation of this rarely named world of Adummim, and the specific form of magic, holomorphy, came to be. Black Bottle also is a bizarre admixture of science fantasy, grotesque horror, and murderous creatures, but it is the perfectly conceived and executed blend of all of these elements that give the book its ultimate power. Without a clear concept of just what you were attempting to do -- and the ability to pull it off -- we might have had just another average, undistinguished fantasy.
I have what some would call a deeply pessimistic view of the world. I don't believe at all that we are entitled to the high opinions of ourselves, our technology, or our society that we generally espouse with so little thought. It's as if most of us subconsciously assume, "Of course! Human beings are the center of everything."
I don't subscribe.
I'm appalled by society. I'm hugely disaffected. Which is why, to answer your first main question pertaining to conceptual process, I can answer quite easily that my process was foremost cathartic. It was from the gut.
I despise those disaster porn movies where a flood or an asteroid wipe out thousands of people in this cinematographically neutered way. We see a car full of people hit by one of many explosions; the car is lifted up off the road and hurled with force out of frame -- but we seldom see the impact (literal or figurative) of their shattered bodies. This is Hollywood's shit way of funneling "action" and "excitement" down our throats in the same way a duck is sadly and forcibly fattened to turn its liver into foie gras. We are affected by this bullshit. It changes us fundamentally.
Having opened this little window into my angst, it would be easy to dwell here, but let's get back to the point. My purpose from the outset was to create a world of exquisite detail, so full of history and technology and strangeness that it would not fit inside the scope of the novel. I wanted the reader to scrabble at the page. My hope was that if I provided enough familiarity in terms of human emotion (longing, love, etcetera) that a heavy dose of the unfamiliar and the strange would make the reader sit up straight and try to understand the other elements of the world.
One of two things was bound to happen. The less favorable was that the reader would give up, see the book as "work" and move on to something more easy to swallow. The second possible outcome (and this is why I've always known the book is niche) would be that the reader suits up for the ride, buys the fantasy, wonders desperately what the origin of holomorphy is (for example) and thereby makes himself or herself susceptible to the awful brutality ahead.
I knew full well that I was going to tear the world apart. And I wanted people to be sad and mystified by that occurrence. I also knew that my ruthlessness would be meaningless if I didn't do the very hard work of making the setting real down to the smallest details. I had to invest. I had to go whole hog. And it was good for me personally to do that because it reinforced to me that what I was saying was true: that there isn't a creation that doesn't have an end. That we are not now as we should be, from a human development standpoint. That our society is mostly a travesty dedicated to making ourselves feel fulfilled or at the bare minimum pleasured. And that we are in desperate need of epiphany.
With those things more or less in mind, I set out to do the dirty work.
I made calendars, dictionaries, maps, economic reports, political synopses, tech sheets, fonts, bestiaries, flora guides, you get the picture.
I then began writing, not about any of those creations, but about something banal: Caliph and Sena's love affair at college. My goal was not to explain any of the things that I had created, but to forge ahead on human lines, leaving the weird elements unexplained and thereby maintaining their integrity. I know the origins of a nautrogienilus but no one else needs to, and in fact it's useful if they don't, which is why I went against my publisher's suggestion and refused to include a glossary. Indeed it was only under duress that I agreed to maps -- though I now believe that my editor was smarter than I was and am happy that they were included.
In your second part of the question you ask specifically about language.
My method of using language is to mix the lofty with the crass. My use of language is very much like my use of genre. I don't believe in separation, but on drawing on all available threads that I deem suitable for either creating something lovely or punching you in the throat. The reader is reading in hopes of being surprised. Using high language allows for what would otherwise be anomalously exquisite descriptions to be penned seamlessly into the text. It demands more of the reader, but I like it. It also allows me to switch down to crass language spontaneously and slap the reader in the face. If that sounds wrong, I apologize for the misunderstanding. I only say so to remain civil, as anyone I would need to apologize to for slapping a reader in the face wouldn't have the foggiest notion of what I'm trying to accomplish with my writing.
As for demanding more of the reader, I am of the opinion that science-fiction and fantasy -- as a general proposition -- writes "up" to the intelligent reader, making the reader work as a co-participant for the high rewards the best of these genres have to offer. From your comment above I believe you have thoroughly succeeded in requiring the reader to invest the time and effort to fully appreciate what you have accomplished here. Black Bottle is a wild ride that works on several levels; the intellectual, the visceral, and the emotional. And it also provides a rousing sense-of-wonder -- albeit a dark one -- that only adds to its page-turning effect. It's a complete package.
That said, you seemed confident in the precise measure of each of the elements that went into the novel. Reviewers, myself included, have seen what we believe to be the influence of Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and others in your work, and not just in the use of high language. In a fair number of Vance's novels he uses footnotes to explain some bit of internal business -- sometimes frequently. While useful, I sometimes find them annoying if over-used. It halts the flow of the story. In Black Bottle you used these little footnotes -- sparingly -- for a brief time near the outset but then seemed to forego them. Any reason for this, and did you have Vance or Wolfe or anyone else in the back of your mind as those who might have influenced The Last Page and Black Bottle in any number of ways, overt or subtle? You have the mix of language reminiscent of author A, B, or C, the meticulous world-building (and what a strange world it is) of many an author adept at it, with what appears to be the dread but never seen cosmic entities known as the Yillo'tharnah, straight out of Lovecraft, and their dark influence over everything.
Regarding Childhood's End, Black Bottle I think is certainly in vein. Certainly you have, in both books, a complete break with what once defined humanity. Evolution is abandoned, unable to keep pace with the changes necessary to move humanity out of the tar pit into which it has stumbled. What's "favored" instead is strange epiphany. "Favored" because in Clarke's work it is actually a plan. In Black Bottle, there's a similar sort of plan but no one is on board except the person who made it. It's very autocratic.
Of course it has to be.
"Strange epiphany" is the focus of this sort of story, and it's interesting to me because what you posit as the author is good guy destroying the status quo (world) versus bad guy trying to save it and that's a bit of a twist. It's made possible by the fact that an epiphany is totally incomprehensible to someone who has not yet had it. This is the very essence of transcendence. The irony is that, because epiphany can't be understood before it occurs, true transcendence will of course usually be feared and even warded against.
Our culture of self-aggrandizement, where we are taught to be proud, to never admit we are wrong, only exacerbates our inability to diagnose and perhaps one day solve our many societal cancers.
Oh yes, and you mention footnotes.
They're curious aren't they? Consider them my off-handed way of getting around a glossary and trying with only half-hearted resolve to point out that I really did do the dirty work and make this stuff up for real. I tried to keep them to a minimum, using them either to explain, on the fly, terms important to organizations like the witchocracy or to clarify new vocabulary when I felt there was simply too much going on to expect the reader to absorb another new word.
I'm ashamed to admit it but Vance and Wolfe were authors I never picked up until people started comparing my writing to them. Then I was like, huh... The Book of the New Sun... Imma check that out. I'm glad I did!
No. I had the entire story more or less in my head but I knew it wasn't going to fit in one book. I always envisioned it as two books.
Paul Stevens is my editor at Tor. He's also been my biggest fan. The guy is just fantastic. Unflagging, really. I can't thank him enough for the incredible opportunity he gave me to get both books out on shelves. If you're reading this, Paul, here's to you!
I am working, very slowly, on a new project. It's a novel I'm calling Bone Radio and it's not connected to the other books. It's something new, and assuredly very weird. *grins*
Thanks Dave. It's been a pleasure talking to you about the book.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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