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Interview: David Erik Nelson on “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House”

David Erik NelsonTell us a bit about “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House.”

The title is an obvious riff on Robert Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House—” I read most of my Heinlein when I was a teenager.  Although I focused on his novels then, his only work that I’m really enduringly attached to is his short stuff, especially “‘—All You Zombies—’” (which Wikipedia tells me originally went up in F&SF; funny lil world, i’n’it?) and a story I *thought* was called “There Was a Crooked Man, He Built a Crooked House.”  The thing was, while I had really vivid recollections of “‘—All You Zombies—’”—despite its complexity—my memory of the other story was patchy.  I had only a foggy notion of the plot and characters—those were lost to time—but I clearly recalled the setting: a rickety old Victorian or French Renaissance Revival up on a hill, a house that paradoxically was bigger on the inside than the outside.  Beyond that, I just had vague recollections that the story was sort of Borgesian, and sort of like ALIEN.

Obviously, that thing I recalled wasn’t Heinlein’s story.  Hell, I didn’t even have the title right.  As it turned out, unbeknownst to me, I’d never actually read “—And He Built a Crooked House—”  What seemed to have happened was that I’d seen the title somewhere (probably in the table of contents of The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag—a collection I had read; it includes “‘—All You Zombies—’”), and then filled in the blanks with the illustrations from some rendition of the nursery rhyme “There Was a Crooked Man” (which has creeped me out for as long as I can remember), some scraps of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (which was a huge book for me and a lot of folks I knew back in 2000), and the slouching houses I remembered watching sliding past the closed windows of my mom’s sedan as a kid, going to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

So this novella, “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House,” is the story I was disappointed to discover Heinlein hadn’t written.  In retrospect, I’m sorta glad he didn’t write it, because he wouldn’t have written it my way anyway.


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

That’s sort of tough.  Most of the stories I write start out as little things that I have no use for: A bit of dialogue, or a character, or a scheme, or a trope—things that I internally think of as “gags,” in the same way that a prat fall or a one-liner is a gag.  Gags, by definition, only work in the context of a bigger thing.  I mean, a prat fall without the setup or resolution is just a dude falling down; it warrants first aid, not laughter.  So I’ll stumble across something shiny, this “gag,” and it’s like a blade with no handle or a key found on the floor.  Not good for anything by itself, but maybe I’ll need it later. So I toss it in the drawer in my head, where it rattles around with all of the other handle-less blades and half-dead batteries and half-used matchbooks and wine corks.  Eventually, I toss in some new bit, and that new bit bangs into and sticks with an old bit and there is a tiny explosion.  That’s when I start writing.

So, with this story, the “Crooked House” was in the drawer in my head for a long time, as were Detroit and its architecture, and the non-Euclidian geometry. But no story, no pop.

During the worst of the Recession the house next door to us stood abandoned for about five years.  That’s it’s own long, sad, #PureMichigan story (details:, but the point is that it fell into the foreclosure hole, where it started rapidly changing hands at rock-bottom prices to ever shadier debt handlers who hired ever shadier crews to do an ever crappier job keeping it up.  Any time a new crew showed up, I’d hustle outside to get the name of who’d contracted them, so I could call and kvetch about the condition of the house.  One day, I came up from the basement to see a new crew mowing the lawn, two guys: A dumpy shaved-headed white guy on a riding mower, and a lanky black guy in cut-offs, using a weed whip to trim under the day lilies running alongside my driveway.  I waved to get the weed-whippers attention, and asked who they were working for.  He told me that they were subbed out by some bigger lawn care company, but he had the name of whoever had contacted them about the house, and dug around in his pocket until he came up with a work order.  I copied down the name and number, asking about what the house looked like inside.  He told me it wasn’t good: mold coming up the walls in the basement, some places where water had gotten in and buckled the linoleum, a little beat up where folks had been in scrapping.

Then the other guy drove the mower up to us, drowning out our conversation.  He cut the engine and asked what I wanted, weirdly gruff and confrontational.  I explained that I lived next door, and his partner had been explaining to me who held the mortgage now and what the condition was like—and then the white guy cut me off and started mansplaining basically everything the black guy had already told me.  It was pretty clear that he thought he was in charge—which was confusing to me, because the guy I’d been talking to had been the one with the work order in his pocket, and also as the white guy spoke it became increasingly apparent that he was almost certainly at least mildly learning disabled.

I turned to the black guy, a sort of “What’s up with dude?” look on my face, and this look passed over his face, this exquisitely nuanced expression that I can’t really capture, but it had these elements of being both frustrated and resigned, and it made it clear:  Either the mentally challenged white guy was indeed nominally in charge, or it was so commonly the case that folks assumed the white guy must be in charge, by virtue of being the white guy, that the black guy simply rolled with it rather than spit into the wind. There was poignance and rage in it, but also a sort of “God pisses down your back all your life, but He only drowns you once—so I guess that means He’s benevolent” good humor.

It was amazing, what he packed into that one expression in that single second.  It was like an August Wilson play in a glance.

That moment dropped into the junk drawer in my head, banged into the others stuff.  There was a “pop!” and I started writing.


“There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House” touches on many of the economic and personal identity aspects of the Detroit experience.  Can you discuss how your own background informed the writing of your novella?

I was born and grew up in the white suburbs outside of Detroit, but a lot of my earliest memories are of the city, where my mom worked as a docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  That’s a weird way to get to know a city like Detroit, which was in worse shape then than it is now.  I remember driving past four and five story buildings that had been apartments, but one exterior wall had collapsed, and you could look into them like dollhouses.  The whole city often seemed abandoned for blocks at a time.  And then you’re in this museum which is large and rambling and beautiful and built for the ages, like a temple, and has one of the finest collections in the world.  There was no middle in Detroit, just those two economic ends.

My mom was not from Detroit—she was from Nebraska—nor were any of my friends or their families (all white, pretty much all some flavor of Christian, at least when I was small).  But my dad and his family (Jews, all) were from Detroit, and were sort of stuck with the city, even having left, the way you’re stuck with a mentally ill brother or a screw-up of a kid: you’ll complain about them, but if anyone else starts in your hackles are up.  And you keep going back, trying to help out even as it never seems to turn out right.

When I was a kid we—my friends and I—used to joke that the “stealth” sci-fi conceit of all sci-fi movies was the “black singularity”—that there was some mysterious event, never spoken of on-screen, where-by almost every African-American disappeared.  The movie that got us started on this was RoboCop, because it was the first movie we’d ever scene set in Detroit—a city we’d actually seen.  I now realize that RoboCop actually had a fairly large number of black actors for a 1980s sci-fi film, but to us kids it seemed like there weren’t nearly enough black people in that future Detroit.  When we went down to Detroit almost *everyone* we saw out and about was black: black kids on bicycles blowing whistles so pedestrians would clear the way, black guys on the sidewalk selling BBQ they were cooking on a grill made form a 50-gallon drum, black women with shopping bags leaving wig shops where all the mannequins in the windows were black.  A black parking attendant took our moms’ money, a black beggar asked for change, a black woman greeted us at the museum where lots of black and white people wandered around looking at art (mostly by white people—until you got down into the African and Native American wings, which were our favorite, because the masks were exciting and strange, where-as the tortured Jesuses and pierced St. Sebastians sorta freaked me out).  A black cop pulled us over on the way home.  The mayor was black.  The police chief (who was famous for his cameo in Beverly Hills Cop) was black—hell, the Beverly Hills Cop himself was black and from Detroit!

The city was about 80% black at the time.

But not in the movies, not in RoboCop, or True Romance, or Bird on a Wire (FUN FACT: I watched *a lot* of TV as a kid; I would watch basically anything.)

Since the crooked house in the drawer in my head was a Detroit house, all the rest of Detroit—actual Detroit, not whitewashed movie Detroit—came along with it: the oddly verdant urban landscape, and people like Felix “the Butcher Man” Fleischerman and Dick Schnabel (the sorts of guys I saw all the time growing up).  Same with the business end, the things that—at least on the surface—drive the Butcher Man and Schnabel.  My family is all in real estate and commercial property management; if you ask me to make up a business thing for a story, it almost always is going to end up being something to do with commercial property.  If I wrote a space opera, it would be about managing the vending machines on a space station.  If I wrote a Western, the protagonist would be struggling with the challenges of shipping dry-goods across the plains.

The Crooked House itself is sort of inspired by the Whitney Mansion (where, as Charlie’s editorial note mentions, my dad shared cramped offices at a time that the city was really laid low), but more so by a house they used to call “Slumpy” (you can google it—it really was an Albert Kahn, and is quite similar to the cover art for this issue).

So, that’s part of what’s going on in this story, for me, at least:  An attempt to fairly and accurately depict the Detroit I’d experienced at first hand.


There are a lot of great sf-nal ideas in this story, all wrapped up in an exhilarating haunted house story.  Can you talk about any research you may have done for “There Was a Crooked Man…” or about your decision to marry horror and sf tropes?

Well, in terms of research, I finally read Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House—”.  Almost none of it had any impact on this story; I found that I preferred what I’d imagined he’d written to what he actually wrote.

The rest, as I mentioned above, was all kicking around the kitchen junk drawer in my magpie brain.  I can tell you that the way I talk about dimensions here, and how folks evolved in N dimensions would perceive folks who can occupy N+1 dimensions, is heavily influenced by Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, with a weird schmeer of H.P. Lovecraft.

As for the horror, I’ll level with you: I don’t think of this story as horror at all.  Like I said before, part of this grew out of that old nursery rhyme, about the crooked man who walked a crooked mile.  That nursery rhyme scared me as a kid, and still unnerves me—what in God’s name is a “crooked man?”  And, for that matter, what makes a crooked mile “crooked?” I think that bled through.

Also, and this will almost certainly sound weird, but there’s more than a little bit of Torah woven into this story (Lennie alludes to this—for those not in the know, the Torah is basically the first five books of the Old Testament [a bunch of the rest of the OT ends up lumped into the “haftorah”—and you can google all that if you’re curious; I doubt anyone tuned in for an exhaustive discussion of Jewish liturgy]).  I had the privilege of an excellent, near-classical education—and so it wasn’t lost on me that, culturally and literarily, we—as Americans—have a lot of Bible woven through what we say and how we say it.  Similarly, I had the privilege of a moderately religious Jewish upbringing, in a generation where you still met plenty of folks who’d been enslaved in concentration camps.  That can somewhat complicate the traditional teachings that ours is a kind, loving, protective God.

At any rate, I invite folks to take a gander at the Bible without the usual cherry picking, and without any sort of ameliorating “interpretation” you might have been offered as a kid.  Just read the words and see what you think.  I might suggest zeroing in on something like Leviticus 24 (which was my Torah portion for my bar mitzvah, back in the day; it’s the part where God tells the People: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—it was “fracture for fracture” that got me then; I got beat up some as a kid) or Samuel I 18:25–27 (even a paraphrase of which isn’t appropriate to a family magazine).  Point being, read objectively, a lot of it the “Good Book” is pretty horrific, and does not easily lend itself to the notion that the Universe is guided by a benevolent or benign force.

And again, I was trying to be accurate in my depiction.  So if that ends up being horrific, well then that one’s on God, not me.


What are you working on now? 

The big project is another SF novella, which is being serialized this summer, one chapter per week:

“Expiration Date” has been billed as a “science fiction ’till death do we part’ story that follows young Lizzie and Bram in a relationship on fast-forward, burdened with the question ‘What would you do, if you knew your end was near?’  There are tardigrades and telomeres and some physics in it, and also “fake news” and fake news, a magic trick, a Subaru, an umbrella, a katana—it’s fun! (for certain values of “fun”)

It is most definitely up the alley of readers who dug “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House.”


“There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House” appears in the July/August 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Mr. Nelson’s photo will take you to his website at


One Response to “Interview: David Erik Nelson on “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House””

  1. eBooks! eBooks! FreeBooks!!! New horror and sci-fi from Dave-o! – Snip, Burn, Solder Blog on March 22nd, 2018

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