by Sandy Auden
A distinctly dark flavour to this month's column with Jasper Kent talking about
his Russian vampires in Twelve and Thirteen Years Later, and Conrad Williams
inhabiting the twilight land between your last breath and your arrival on the
other side in Decay Inevitable.
Thirteen Years Later is Jasper Kent's second novel in his haunting vampire series The Danilov Quintet. Starting in Twelve, the stories are set in 19th Century Russia and follow Colonel Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov from the 1812 Napoleonic invasions of Russia through to the post-invasion years, to 1825 and the mysterious death of Tsar Aleksandr the First. Entangled in the lives of Aleksandr and Aleksei are a group of mercenaries called the Oprichniki who come from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe. The mercenaries play a sinister role in haranguing the Napoleonic forces invading Russia and later prove to have curious, and possibly deadly, connections to the Tsar.
Kent's interest in vampires can be traced back to his informative years, growing up with the most popular movies of the time...
How did the Hammer films you watched growing up influence your decision to write Twelve and Thirteen Years Later?
I suppose the most obvious influence was in terms of putting vampires in a period setting. Obviously Hammer produced a huge range of styles of horror films, but the ones that stick in my mind as archetypal are the historical Dracula and Frankenstein stories.
Beyond that, there's a subtle build-up of vampire clichés, from Hammer and other sources, which become a sort of palette that I can use as a writer, but I have to be very careful with deciding which I want to use and which to discard. And looking back, I've become aware of just how flawed the films are in many ways, so they can also be a useful roadmap of what to avoid.
Why did you pick Russia in the 1800s for the setting of your vampire stories?
It was really just a combination of what was kicking around in my mind at the time -- vampires, Napoleon, Russia -- which gelled into the idea. Looking back, it's easy enough to say why that ends up being a good idea -- because 1812 had such a huge impact on the whole of European history -- but that's really a post-rationalization.
How much do you know about Russian history?
Slightly more than my average reader and slightly less than my characters.
Did Danilov really exist?
There's certainly no one character that Aleksei is based on. A lot of him is taken from various characters in War and Peace, particularly Denisov, who in turn was based on the genuine historical figure of Denis Vasilyevich Davidov. Davidov's own memoirs certainly contributed to Aleksei's character, and in Twelve Aleksei acknowledges Davidov as one of his heroes.
How historically accurate is the story?
My hope is that anything the reader my suspect is historically accurate probably is. Certainly the dates and locations of battles etc. are all correct to the best of my knowledge. Having said that though, there are bound to be errors, and also areas where I've made assumptions, never dreaming that things might have been different (the unknown unknowns and Rumsfeld put it).
In Thirteen Years Later it was rather harder, since there's far more involvement of major historical figures. Again I think I've got everyone in the right place at the right time, and quite often got them to say what they are reported as having said, interspersed with dialogue of my own. Ultimately I'm not trying to write stories that are historically accurate, but ones which, however bizarre, are not actually contradicted by the historical record.
How important was an accurate picture of the Russian culture to the story?
I can only aim for verisimilitude rather than verity. The problem is that the vast majority of the Russian population in the period was illiterate, so even those contemporaneous authors who do describe the life of the serf do so from a external viewpoint. Thus whenever I've tried to turn the story away from the rich elite, I've found myself totally at sea.
And even the experiences of a wealthy, educated Russian would seem very unfamiliar to a modern western reader, so I've had to moderate even my distorted view of the period to make it more comfortable.
Why write about vampires when Russia has a very rich folklore to plunder?
Again, it's a question of the direction from which I came at the idea; vampires occurred to me before Russia. But there's plenty more books to be written once The Danilov Quintet is done, so there's still opportunity for plundering.
How did the story develop into the five novels of The Danilov Quintet and why that particular time span of 1812 to 1917?
I'd been toying with the idea of a sequel, and 1825 was a possible setting for it. But then I went to see the play Journey's End and got to thinking how little I knew about the eastern front in the First World War. By the time I left the theatre I'd got the idea of spanning Russian history from 1812 to 1917, and that having vampires was a bonus because I could have characters continuing over that period in a way that would normally be impossible.
How much of the five stories did you know in advance as you wrote book one and has anything had to change by the end of book two in your plans -- has it gone anywhere you hadn't foreseen?
When first I wrote Twelve it was intended to be a one-off. Once I'd done the basic plan for the series, there were actually very few changes needed to Twelve, and those were really specific to Thirteen Years Later rather than for the longer term. For the full series, I have a list of dates of births, deaths and undeaths, and I've not had to reschedule any of those as yet. Also, the dates for the remaining books (circa 1855, 1880 and 1917) have remained stable. The trend I'm noticing is that I'm becoming more interested in the politics of the era rather than the warfare.
What is going to happen in The Third Section? And do you know which month they'll be publishing it in next year?
The Third Section (working title) begins on October 13th 1854 (O.S.) in the Crimea, hours after the Charge of the Light Brigade. It ends in Moscow in the autumn of 1856, a few weeks after the Coronation of Tsar Aleksandr II. It follows the lives of Dmitry Alekseevich Danilov, a major in the cavalry defending Sevastopol from the British and French attack, and Tamara Valentinovna Komarova, an agent in The Third Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery -- the tsar's secret police. And there are some vampires. No specific date for publication yet, but the script is due in to Transworld in September.
Vampiric adventures Twelve and Thirteen Years Later are available now from publishers Bantam Press.
Conrad Williams Examines The Difficulties of Dying in Decay Inevitable
Conrad Williams' latest novel, Decay Inevitable, takes a peek at what can go wrong when you're trying to die, passing through the grim territories that tremble at the very end of life.
Sean Redman is a failed policeman who cannot escape the job. Will Lacey is a husband who witnesses the birth of a monster. Cheke is a killing machine programmed to erase every trace of an experiment gone horribly wrong. A race is on to unearth the secrets of the soul... secrets woven into the fabric of death itself.
The book was released quietly towards the end of last year but Williams is a much underrated author and the story is well worth checking out so we popped him a few questions about it...
What sparked the story into life for you?
I had a girlfriend who worked in the construction industry. She had a gadget called a hydrometer in her workbag and I was fooling around with it one day, pressing its sensors against various things. It measures how much water is in objects and has three read-outs. So you touch it against steel and it says DECAY: IMPOSSIBLE. You touch it against treated wood and it says DECAY: UNLIKELY. I touched it against my own hand and the readout beeped and said: DECAY: INEVITABLE. A bit depressing... but that was the 'in' for me.
Married to that was a story I had been toying with, off and on, since the late 80s about people able to find their way to this brink, this area teetering on the edge between life and death. And an image that hit me one day, of a man running hard, being pursued through rain by something moving impossibly fast, having bits shot off him -- but he carries on, desperate to give a warning to his friends.
The book is triple threaded (one each for the policeman, hubby and killing machine). What challenges did that produce?
I think the main threat, in writing from the viewpoints of two males of similar ages, is that both their voices will end up sounding the same. Also, writing from the point of view of a female killing machine with a lack of control over her physicality... that was quite hard. There's not a huge amount of research you can do for that... so it was a case of writing by the seat of my pants most of the time.
Why did you want explore the boundary between life and death?
I suppose it's something to do with a fear of limbo. I mean, once you're dead, you're dead and there's nothing to worry about any more. But what if you don't quite die...?
In my recent novel, The Unblemished, there are some very bad creatures who, at the start, kill ineptly. They don't quite finish the job off. And in my story "The Veteran," there's a character who does this on purpose: suffocation then resuscitation after the brain has been irreparably damaged. I can't think of anything more terrible.
So that hinterland is where I've put all my "in between" characters. Coma victims. Clingers on. It's a really fun place to be...
How much research into the mythology/science of death did you do?
I read a couple of excellent books on the subject of death. Sherwin B Nuland's How We Die and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. But because this was a fantasy novel, I ended up ignoring most of the facts and doing what I wanted to do.
But it's a cumulative effect, I suppose. It's in the detail. How to portray carnage, for example, in a believable way. Something as simple as the description of a dead body is not that simple when you get going. It can end up being comical, which is a death-knell for the horror writer.
Why do you write horror?
I don't deliberately set out to write horror, but it tends to be what I lean towards whenever I get an idea. I write what occurs to me; it's just that, nine times out of ten, it's very dark stuff.
I have this rubbernecking tendency in me, which I wish wasn't there, but it is and there's not much I can do about it. I can't not look at atrocity. So I've been to some pretty horrendous websites and looked through the books about car crashes and cadavers. There are some pictures of car crashes out there that could put you off roads for ever.
The one good thing to come out of it is that I'm a very careful driver. It's all grist for the mill, but it means I don't eat much steak tartar...
Decay Inevitable is out now from Solaris publishers.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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