It seems self evident that anyone who calls their business “Corvid” must have a thing about crows and ravens. So naturally, when I discovered one of the small presses I art direct for (Necon Ebooks) had a book in their catalog titled The Whispers of Crows, I had to check it out. Obsession has it’s price, of course; if you insist on reading anything & everything about a particular subject, you’re going to read a lot of dreck. In this case, I was lucky. Dan Foley’s The Whispers of Crows was a collection of horror and dark fantasy stories that was a real delight, one of the gems that stood out from the crowd.
Flash forward a year or so, and I’ve got Dan’s novel Death’s Companion to create a cover for. I’ve mentioned before how much I admired that book, and creating the cover was great fun. Then this summer, I got a chance to illustrate another of Dan’s books, Wolf’s Tale. I’ve written about the process of making that cover elsewhere on this blog.
In the meantime, Dan had retired from his consulting work, to give his time over to writing. And he certainly hasn’t wasted that time – he’s already got three new books out, a fourth (Wolf’s Tale) in production, and a new one in process. With all that going on, we’re glad he could take the time out to talk to us…
Corvid Design: There have been a number of fantasy, horror, and even comedy works that involve “reapers” – supernatural characters who collect the dead. In Death’s Companion your supernatural character isn’t a collector, they’re just literally a companion to the person through their death. What inspired that twist?
Dan Foley: I wanted to explore the stages of grief a dying person would experience without that person actually dying. They are: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. Jerry, the protagonist, goes through each stage in that order. Even though Jerry can’t die, he has, in a way, died. Life as he knew it is over and the life stretching before him is pretty hopeless. With all that said, I wanted to show that human nature resists despair. After becoming death’s companion Jerry still strives to make things better for himself, the family he left behind and those whose deaths he has to share
CD: Death’s Companion has a pretty grimdark cosmology underpinning it – when we die, we have a 50/50 chance of going on to the next stage (heaven, reincarnation, or whatever – it isn’t specified), OR of being eaten, and ending our existence in what will feel like an eternity of pain. And it’s random – there’s no figure with a scale who passes judgement, no giant book of records listing our good and bad acts, it’s just random chance if an Eater is nearby when you pass over. Nothing depends on merit or worth, it’s all luck of the draw. Is that your personal philosophy? That whether we go on after death or are snuffed out is random chance?
DF: I don’t believe in either. What I believe in is nature. Nature isn’t fair, it isn’t cruel, it is what it is. As I said in the prologue, the living, the souls and the eaters are in balance, as is all of nature. The eaters aren’t evil, they’re predators. In the void, souls are the prey. And, in turn, the eaters are also prey for the hunters. This is nature in action.
I also slipped a little nuclear physics in there for those who might recognize it. Eaters reproduce by collecting enough souls that they contain too much energy. When that happens they split into hundreds of little eaters. That is basically nuclear fission. Souls evolve into hunters by joining together into a perfect soul. This is basically nuclear fusion.
CD: Death’s Companion is a long, dense novel, with multiple story threads following Jerry, your main protagonist, along with the girl Carrie, the mysterious old man Sam, the Soul Eater and its Hunters, and a number of asides that glance into other lives and deaths along the way. You cover a lot of geographic territory, as well, from Rhode Island to California, and lots of places in between. By contrast, Intruder is a short, sharp shock. It has a small cast, a single stage set – they’re jammed into the pressure cooker of a submarine. The action starts almost at once, and is pretty constant right up to the denouement. Having done both, which approach do you find yourself most comfortable with, and why?
DF: I don’t think I favor either approach. I let the story dictate how involved it becomes and its length. Intruder had to be a novella because life on a submarine is, for the most part, boring. There’s only so much you can convey about everyday life. The other thing about life on a submarine is that even though every man knows every other man, they are pretty much encapsulated by their ratings. Engineers associate with other engineers, not torpedo men or radiomen.
In Death’s Companion, I had to allow Gerry to be dragged all over the country by the link he experiences with his “clients.” It provided depth to the world he lived in. I also had to spend more time developing the characters in this story to make the reader empathize with them.
CD: Intruder is full of meticulous detail about the sub, and an abundance of acronyms and slang that are common among the submariners in the story. The proliferation of convincing naval and submarine descriptions and jargon definitely adds a sense of authenticity to the tale. It’s pretty clear from this that you were once a submariner yourself, and those experiences inform Intruder. Assuming you never ran into any Nazi ghosts down there, what was your most terrifying undersea experience?
DF: There were two. One of them is in the book. We were on sea trials and the ship yard had installed a piece of equipment incorrectly. When we did our deep dive to test depth, the hydraulic system had been contaminated with sea water. As a result we were unable to stop our dive and would up exceeding our test depth. There were others, but that was the scariest because there was nothing I could do but go along for the ride.
The other occurred on my first patrol. Again, we were on sea trials. We were doing “angles and dangles,” where the captain puts the boat through various maneuvers to make sure it performs like it should. Since it was my first patrol, I wasn’t assigned to a watch station. Instead, I was part of the aft damage control party which meant I just had to keep out of the way unless something happened. As it turned out, something did happen. A valve on top of a tank was left open by mistake and several hundred gallons of water overflowed from the tank into the lower level engine room. The watch stander there reported flooding in the LLER. At the same time, there was an actual grease fire in the galley. Both were announced over the subs communication system followed by “Emergency Blow, Emergency Blow.” When the blow valves were opened I was sitting just inboard of the relief valves on the blow lines. We were at test depth when the incidents occurred and the pressure in the ballast tanks was high enough to cause the relief valves, which were right behind me, to lift. They sounded like shotguns going off and scared the hell out of me.
CD: Some people might argue that you made being on board a submarine scary enough without any ghosts or monsters. But a supernatural threat at sea could have been anything – sea serpents, mermaids, giant squids, ghost pirates, Atlanteans, Bermuda Triangle aliens, or even Cthulu. Why the ghost of a Nazi submariner?
DF: The ghost was a metaphor for the ocean. It’s cold, it always wants to get into the boat, and if it does it will kill you. A leak at depth would be a cold, white spray of death. It’s the elephant in the room we never talk about, but everyone knows it’s always there. The ghost was my way of introducing that aspect of being constantly submerged in a steel cylinder with the very real threat of death all around you.
CD: Wolf is more of a supporting character in Intruder (though he provides the key to defeating the monster). And the ghost story he tells in Intruder is repeated at more length and in more detail at the start of Wolf’s Tale. When you had Wolf tell about his background in Intruder, did you already know you wanted to expand on that, give Wolf his own book? Or was that an afterthought, based on reader reaction?
DF: Wolf was a character that always intrigued me. I hinted about the possibility of a story about Wolf’s return to the bayou but had no idea at the time if I would ever write one. Then, I wrote two novels between Intruder and Wolf’s Tale (Abandoned & Reunion) but always found myself wondering what happened to Wolf when he returned home. That’s why I wrote the story. I wanted to see where Wolf’s life went after he left the Navy.
CD: Wolf’s Tale is set in the Cajun bayou of Louisiana. Every region has its own folk tales and ghost stories, its peculiar magic and witchcraft. Why the bayou? What is it about Cajun magic and folklore?
DF: I’ve been in every state except Alaska and North Dakota (which made Jerry’s travels in Death’s Companion easier to write). I lived in Mississippi for seven months and did some fishing in the bayous there. Later, I spent a lot of time in New Orleans when I was working as an instructor at the Waterford 3 nuclear power plant. In my mind, New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous present the perfect atmosphere for a ghost story.
In Wolf’s Tale I also resurrected another character from one of my short stories, Old Mose, or just Mose, as he’s known in Wolf’s Tale. Mose was perfect for the story.
As for folklore, the region is steeped in it and I played on that.
CD: The monster in Reunion is a creature called the Oniare, an Iroquois snake monster haunting the depths of a lake in Vermont. Does Iroquois lore and magic figure as largely in Reunion as Cajun lore does in Wolf’s Tale?
DF: Not really. I drew the Oniare from the Iroquois legend, but, except for Chuck Turcott, the story takes place in a post-native American environment. The Oniare was a nod to the idea that there may be a grain of truth in all myths.
CD: You do seem to have a predilection for watery threats. You’ve taken us fathoms deep into the North Atlantic, and into the swamps and the bayou, and now with Reunion we’ve got this lake monster. Is there something you find intrinsically scary about water? Or are you just attracted to such settings for some other reason?
DF: Water has always been a part of my life and it seeps (pun intended) into a lot of the things I write. The river in Reunion was a recreation of the river that played a large part of my adolescence. As a teen I lived on a lake for one year and spent a lot of time there even after I moved back into town. My summers were also filled with trips to the Jersey Shore. And, when I vacation, it’s always to a lake or Caribbean island. So yes, I’m partial to water settings.
CD: The write-up on Abandoned makes James Sutton almost like the victim, rather than a villain. Is James closer to, say, Dexter than Hannibal Lecter?
DF: James is a psychopath, but I wanted to show that, except for his little “problem” that he was no different than any of us. He wants to be accepted. He wants to be loved. He elicits sympathy from the reader and that makes him scarier than if he was just a non-feeling Hannibal Lector type. I wanted the reader to like James and root for him even though he does horrible things.
CD: Sutton’s issues go back to his experiences as an orphan and an adopted child. What inspired that? Do you have some personal connection to this issue? Have you adopted, or were you adopted yourself, or have some close connection to someone who was?
DF: The answer there is yes, and no. At the time I wrote Abandoned, I had no close experience with adoption. I did, however, have a lot of experience with loss—loss of a pet, loss of a friend, loss of a parent. I wanted to examine what would happen to someone (James) who suffered these losses but who was incapable of dealing with them.
After I signed the contract for Abandoned, my daughter and son-in-law decided to adopt. The applied to an agency that specializes in open adoptions. It took almost a year, but they were chosen to be the adoptive parents of a wonderful baby boy. Both the adoptive parents and their families remain a part of his life, so he loved by two sets of parents, and multiple families. He will never have to feel that he was abandoned.
CD: What’s your next project? Can you tell us a little about it?
DF: After a few false starts I’m well into my next novel. It was inspired by the reality television show Alone. The story, working title Alone?, deals with a 22 year old recent college graduate who attempts to duplicate the challenge of living alone in the wild with no contact with the outside world.
CD: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions
DF: You’re welcome. From the depth of the questions it’s obvious you read each of the books you’re asking about. I appreciate that.
In closing, as usual, we’ll pose the famous ten questions from Bernard Pivot:
– What is your favorite word?
Can’t think of one.
– What is your least favorite word?
Two really—“you can’t”
– What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Being with other creative people.
– What turns you off?
Ignorant, prejudiced people.
– What is your favorite curse word?
“Jesus flip.” Something I must have made up because I’ve never heard anyone else say it.
– What sound or noise do you love?
– What sound or noise do you hate?
A car with the stereo cranked up so loud it could shake the fillings out of your teeth.
– What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
None. I’m retired. I went back to work for two months to help out someone who asked. I realized then I really don’t want another job.
– What profession would you not like to do?
– If an afterworld exists, what would you like to hear the deity of your choice say when you arrive there?
“Buckle up, Dan. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.”
Look for Wolf’s Tale coming in October from Necon Ebooks.
Find Dan Foley on the web: