Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“A freezing horror took hold of him…”

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"The copilot shook his head..."

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve always been fascinated by horror fiction, but I’ve rarely drawn on its conventions for my own work. A few of my short stories—notably “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids”—employ horror tropes, and “Kawataro” is essentially an extended homage to the genre. In my novels, though, there’s little if any trace of it. Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve ended up working in a category that doesn’t accommodate itself easily to that style: suspense fiction, at least of the international kind that I write, operates within a narrow tonal range, with heightened events and purposeful violence described with clinical precision. This air of constraint is both the genre’s limitation and its greatest strength, but it also means that horror sits within it uncomfortably. At its best, horror fiction comes down to variations of tone, with everyday mundanity disrupted by unknown terrors, and a writer like Stephen King is so good at conveying the ordinary that the horror itself can seem less interesting by comparison. (Writers in whom the tone is steeped in dread from the beginning have trouble playing these changes: I love H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, but I can’t say that he scares me.)

The big exception is Chapter 44 of City of Exiles, in which horror comes to the forefront of the narrative to a degree that doesn’t have a parallel in the rest of the series. City of Exiles isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve been hard on it elsewhere in this commentary, but I still think that the last ten chapters or so represent some of the strongest writing I’ve published, and the sequence kicks off here, as a neurotoxin is released inside a private plane with horrifying results. If the scene works, and I believe it does, it’s largely because of the kind of tonal shift that I describe above. It opens with Powell and Chigorin discovering that there may be a lethal device on board the plane, and for several pages, the action unfolds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, complete with detailed specs on the ventilation system. (The couple of paragraphs spent discussing the ram system and the mix manifold were the product of a lot of tedious hours paging through aircraft manuals online.) But once the poison is released, the tone shifts abruptly into nightmare, and the result is a page or two like nothing else in these novels.

"A freezing horror took hold of him..."

In describing what Powell sees, I consciously turned back to the likes of King and Lovecraft, and there’s also a sentence or two of deliberate homage to “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” a Sherlock Holmes short story that turns on a similar device. (“The Devil’s Foot” also provides the epigraph to Part III, and there are subtle allusions to it throughout the novel. Justice Roundhay, who sends Ilya to Belmarsh Prison, is named after one of Conan Doyle’s characters, and the two aliases that Karvonen uses—Dale Stern and Trevor Guinness—are nods to the names Sterndale and Tregennis.) The notion that Powell would see a monstrous version of one of the cherubim from Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah is one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect, although it didn’t occur to me until fairly late in the process. It also involves a small cheat, since Powell is never directly privy to Wolfe’s conversations on the subject with Ilya, so I had to insert a short line in a previous chapter to explain why he’d have Ezekiel on his mind.

And although the result works well, at least to my eyes, I’m glad that it’s restricted to this chapter and nowhere else. Horror, as we all know well, is more effective the less it’s described, and as it stands, the description of Powell’s hallucination goes on just as long as necessary. It doesn’t feel like anything else in these books, which is part of the point: it’s a momentary disruption of the evenhanded tone I try to maintain even in scenes of great violence or intensity, and it casts a shadow over the more conventionally suspenseful scenes that follow. I’d love to write a real horror novel someday, mostly for the challenge of sustaining that kind of mood over a longer stretch of narrative: the number of novels that really pull it off would fill maybe a single shelf, and it’s no accident that King’s short stories are often so much scarier than his books. Still, I suspect that this scene works as well as it does because it’s embedded within a novel that otherwise seems so removed from the emotions that true horror evokes. And as with the poison that triggers these visions, a small dose is usually more than enough…

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