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Interview: David Erik Nelson on “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”

David Erik NelsonTell us a bit about “Whatever Comes After Calcutta.”

This is one of those stories that I think may have accidentally taken on a lot of political overtones that weren’t intentional. I guess that’s for readers to determine; I wrote it mostly in early 2016, well before a lot of what it feels like it’s about actually happened.  This story was locked up well before the election.

Nonetheless, when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:

I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them:  They are getting screwed.  We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.

This story is about that, in a fundamental way.


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

My wife and kids and I were on a family vacation, driving through rural Ohio and I turned on NPR.  It was one of those shows where people tell long personal anecdotes—maybe The Moth or Radio Lab?—and the story in question was about a witchcraft investigation/trial in the farmlands outside Calcutta.  For some reason I took the speaker to be telling a story about Calcutta, Ohio (I suppose because we were driving through Ohio), not Kolkata, India.  I get sorta muzzy-headed on these long drives—we used to call this “highway hypnosis”—and there’s an opioid epidemic and . . . it just sorta seemed to make sense.  Then he said something about Bengal, and I realized he was talking about Kolkata, and part of me said “Well, that makes a lot more sense, really” and another part of me said “No, it doesn’t,” because I live in a college town, and meet plenty of folks from India (the engineer up the street, he and his wife are from Chennai), and I can say for a fact that I’ve met more Ohioans who believe in supernatural forces than Indians.

But, so, that’s what got me started.


Was “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Back when I was in college I used to eat lunch and study at this Coney fairly regularly (my wife tells me that “Coney” is a super-regional term; think “diner that also serves Greek food”).  One time I was in there and the cops came in to remove this guy who was half-a-bubble-off-plumb and getting belligerent.  The cops went and got the waitress who had called them and gave her this card to read.  It was like an incantation, casting him out; the verbiage reminded me of the exorcisms you’d see in the Sunday afternoon thriller on WXOM TV 20.  I guess under Michigan in order to charge someone with trespassing they have to be *knowingly* on the property against the property owner’s will.  So if a business had repeated problems with someone, the cops would have the complainant read out this generic trespass letter while they stood by as witnesses, and then tell the folks something to the effect of “Now, the next time you come in here, it’s automatically criminal trespass, a 30-day misdemeanor; go and sin no more” (or whatever).  But that really struck me, how it was like a magic spell that someone who the law recognizes as empowered can cast, like a magic missile targeted at the down and out.

Meanwhile, I’ve long kept tabs on the militia movement (being from Michigan, and a Jew, there’s a percentage in having a notion of how the wind is blowing in that neck of the woods).  So I got to see the “sovereign citizen” movement germinate, take root, and flourish at first hand.  It’s crazy talk, all of it—but given the experience of the law for folks who have few resources and dodgy education, it’s no crazier than the law that they’re subjected to every day.  I mean, if a waitress can read some magic words and all of a sudden I’m forbidden from getting lemon-chicken soup, why the hell can’t I maybe figure out the magic words not to have to pay for a driver’s license?

There’s something to that crazy logic—logic that, to me, is distinctly “militia logic,” but which is also clearly perfectly valid lawyer logic—that’s enduringly compelling.  It’s got a dark attraction, and I have nothing but compassion for anyone who gets drawn into it.


Did you do any research for this story?

I think I mentioned last time we talked, about “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House,” I subscribe to a “magpie and junk drawer” approach to research:  My brain locks on to odd shiny things and hordes them.  So, apart from a little light googling to get terminology right, most of the research was decades of accumulated shiny bits, including exotic names for one-light towns, trends in anti-gov’t activism, guns, witchcraft—regular stuff.

That said, I need to thank a lawyer friend, Anne Marie Ellison Miller, for being willing to field a lot of tedious questions as I struggled to get my brain around the lawyering universe.


What are you working on now?

I’m about 13,000 words in on a novella related to “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House.”  This one is tentatively titled “The Giftschrank, the Golem, the Dread Liberator.”

Project wise, I’ve been setting aside a little time each week to compose tracks from the made-up soundtracks of non-existent movies.  The results get posted here:


“Whatever Comes After Calcutta” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

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


2 Responses to “Interview: David Erik Nelson on “Whatever Comes After Calcutta””

  1. I’m the YEAR’S BEST, mofos! – Snip, Burn, Solder Blog on March 12th, 2018

    […] to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction–“Whatever Comes After Calcutta” (link to my interview about it)–has been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year (Vol. […]

  2. F&SF Interviews Dave-o about Witches, Guns, Lawyers, Ohio Militias, etc. – Snip, Burn, Solder Blog on March 26th, 2018

    […] Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction interviewed me about my latest horror story, “Whatever Comes After […]

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