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Interview: Rus Wornom on “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire”

- Tell us a bit about “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.”

Know, o Prince, that in the dimly-remembered days of the mid-1990s, I determined to finally read the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I had not read before–everything after Book 10. Some of these were–to be honest–not ERB’s best works (one was very heavily rewritten by a pulp editor back in the day), and I began to think about writing an homage/parody of Tarzan–not a George of the Jungle-klutz type, but more of a Leslie Nielsen in “Police Squad”/Naked Gun type. I started making notes for an origin trilogy about Ka-Gor, my Tarzan pastiche (who would later become Scrotar, Lord of the Savage Jungle), and the bulk of the action would take place on a forgotten island in the middle of nowhere–my version of Kong’s Skull Island.

Very soon, my story got hijacked by the concept of the island itself, and I realized that this was an island, in the present day, where the heroes, villains and locales from the Pulp Era still existed. They had a home on the east coast of Cayo Arcana, where explorers, heroes and characters from the Golden Age of Adventure could meet: The Enigma Club, a classic English gentlemen’s club founded by a core group of twelve members who, in my mind, represented many of the archetypes of classic pulp fiction: the starlet, the spy, the rogue, the adventuress, the scientist (perhaps mad), the explorer-for-hire.

That trilogy, which I had planned as an origin story about the Club, somehow became shanghaied by a present-day story of how the Club, forgotten (actually, hidden) since the end of the Pulp Era in 1953, is rediscovered and introduced to a world that desperately needs extraordinary tales of extraordinary people. The novels changed focus because I changed my focus: I realized I wanted to bring back the original pulps for generations that knew nothing about them.

I can certainly argue that the pulps are still with us today. They’ve merely evolved. Weird Tales has become “Buffy” and “Supernatural.” The Shadow became the Batman, who has become “Arrow.” G-8 became James Bond, who became Dirk Pitt. John Carter became Flash Gordon and evolved into Riddick. Planet Stories became Forbidden Planet, then evolved into “Star Trek.”

But I wanted this generation to be reintroduced to the original type of pulp tales, and I considered that perhaps playing-it-straight pulp stories wouldn’t do the trick . . . but if I added some humor to the mix, ala “Monty Python,” “SNL” and National Lampoon, it would work like Mary Poppins once sang: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

So I wrote The Enigma Club, the contemporary story of a man who finds an old issue of a forgotten pulp in his father’s boot camp duffel bag. It’s a copy of The Enigma Club All-Adventure Magazine from 1934. My protagonist had grown up with comics and hero pulps, but this title he had never heard of, and his father had never mentioned it. So he determines to find out the link between this Club and his father. The novel is the story of his quest–how he rediscovers Cayo Arcana and does battle with a nefarious pulp-type villain, Wang Fat Fang, over the fate of the island and the Club, which the protagonist now considers his home. (By the way, Scrotar is still a part of The Enigma Club. He deeded them the island after they saved his life in their first adventure as a team.)

My original intent was to include a story about each founding member of the Club; a representative tale of that particular type of pulp tale. My only complaint about the lovely novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, was that Michael Chabon did not include in the novel a comic book story of their hero, and I determined I would do otherwise. I waited until after I had finished the novel to write the extra stories, and by the time I had finished three and begun two others, I realized the book was getting too long. So I left one story in, “Sky-Gods of Ixtamal,” as a representative pulp tale of a lost civilization, daring pilots, a reluctant adventurer, and Burroughs-esque danger and heroics. I decided to try and place the other two complete stories with magazines at a later date.

The Enigma Club is being agented by Andrew Zack, and since he’s sending it out to editors now, I hoped that publication of a related story would help his efforts. So I thank Gordon for buying “Mountains,” and I hope/pray/get down on my knees and beg like a dog focused on a cookie in his hand that he’ll publish “Hot Time at Bad Penny’s” in the near future.

-What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

My stories are frequently results of my mind triangulating. In this case, for inclusion in the novel, I had already written a list of twelve pulp-like titles and associated them with my twelve charter Club members. I picked one at random: “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire.” The image that had been in my head since I came up with the title was that of a mountain range in the Arctic that burned with something secret deep inside the ice. I knew that the story would be an early twentieth-century spy tale, since the character was Commander Denis Winslow Mallard–Ducky to his friends at the Club–and Mallard was the secret agent known as M4, the Mongoose.

Something in my mind clicked when I added 1. Flares in the ice and 2. Spies with 3. Frazetta. Frank Frazetta’s influence on today’s storytellers, not to mention artists, cannot be understated. Frazetta was the supreme artist for Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in the 1970s.

“The Frost Giants” was the final piece that built the story in my mind, and the writing suddenly became very Howardesque. A dose of Frazetta’s evocative imagery and a taste of Burroughs’ or Howard’s prose can combine into a powerful potion of storytelling; and when those things came together for me, I knew the story I was going to tell: spies on missions in the frozen wastes, who discover something supernatural and dangerous. The Enigma Club is my homage to Burroughs, and this story is my homage to Howard and Frazetta. I suspect I owe them all a debt I will never finish repaying.

Finally, I had to change the character’s name. I never watched the show regularly, but by accident I flipped onto an episode of “NCIS” and discovered that the character played by David McCallum was also named Ducky Mallard. Crap. I had recently tried to buy a copy of the “autobiography” of John Steed, of the magnificent British show, “The Avengers,” and had learned that the character’s full name was John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed. I figured the Commander should have no less an impressive name, and M4 became Denis Winslow Mallard Codswallop Bourginon Cushing–Codswallop as a dollop of self-deprecating humor, and Bourginon because my wife and I adore hearty red wines. He got his surname from Peter Cushing (also, coincidentally, an “Avengers” alumnus.)

-What kind of research, if any, did you do for “In the Mountains of Frozen Fire?”

I wanted the most dangerous of the villainous triad at the opening to have an exotic and strange blade, something memorable. I found the falcata by searching online, and determined from photos that this was the exact type of blade my evildoer would use. In another article, the writer mentioned that the hilt of the falcata was often customized to fit the hand of its owner, and I filed that away for possible use, as well.

I also did some research into the names of historical incidents, crimes and disasters that I could use as referents that would tie into the past deeds of my villains. Then I made up a bunch that were similar, yet silly.

For this story, however, the real research was from a lifetime of living in the grip of popular culture. M4, to me, was a cross between Steed, Bond and Artemus Gordon. His train was inspired by the train seen in every episode of “The Wild Wild West.” The tavern locales of Ghutranh were merely darker, smokier versions of the inns seen in Hammer’s Dracula films, and the snow-covered vistas were from Lost Horizon and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas–and in unforgettable black and white.

-Was the conception and writing of this story personal for you in any way?

Every story is personal, in one way or another–at least, they better be. I’ve had the opportunity to write three novels that were works for hire, based on properties that I hardly cared about. But I took the jobs, and I was forced to find ways to make the stories and characters important to me. Seriously: If a story doesn’t work for the writer, how could anyone expect it to work for a reader? Why write a story that means nothing to you?

All the stories I will eventually write about the Enigma Club’s founding members will embody the archetypes of the pulps and the speculative-adventure stories that thrilled me while I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, including the next generation of comics, tv shows and movies that have touched me along the way. It’s a debt I owe, and I want to pay it back by helping to bring back the great pulp tales of yesteryear and expose them to a new audience hungry for tales that are amazing, fantastic, astounding, weird and uncanny.

-What are you working on now?

My wife gave me an idea a few years ago while I was shaving, getting ready to go to work at a great metropolitan newspaper. (Insert snark here.) She thought it was a bad idea . . . but one that might sell. By the time I wiped the shaving cream off my face, I knew the main characters’ names, the basic storyline, and that it would be a story about love and loss. It was most definitely an awful idea. And I loved it.

As soon as I sent the final manuscript for The Enigma Club to my agent, I began writing Ghostflowers. It’s a novel of the supernatural set in the South of 1971 against a classic rock background. It’s Love Story, as told by Hammer.

It was a bad idea. But it’s not, any more. I made it personal.

-Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank F&SF for the opportunity to say hi directly to your readers. I don’t go to a lot of cons and rarely get the chance to meet F&SF fans, so having a chance like this to communicate is wonderful!

Please feel free to send me questions or comments at theenigmaclub@gmail.com. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, and you can read my infrequent posts on my blog at http://takeanotherroadtoanothertime.blogspot.com/.

By the way: “Hi, everybody!”

“In the Mountains of Frozen Fire” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.

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