Stephen Dobyns’ new thriller The Burn Palace opens in a small Rhode Island town with a newborn baby gone missing and a giant snake left in its place. Then it gets really scary—and, as the body count rises, often hysterically funny. In this Zola Q&A, Dobyns—author of some 40 books of poetry, literary fiction, and noir—explains how he shifts between genres, why New England has long been the setting for the creepiest tales, and what it’s like to get a rave review from Stephen King.
Zola: What is it about East Coast small towns that make them such great settings for thrillers?
Stephen Dobyns: The master of creepy New England stories is H.P. Lovecraft, and his creepiest story is “The Dunwich Horror” written in 1928. He gives us decrepitude and inbreeding, vicious ignorance and monsters, threatening vegetation and extra-terrestrial invasions. The discomfort begins in the first sentence: “When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.” And immediately after: “…the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation.”
Ever since Lovecraft it has been impossible to write a creepy New England story without Lovecraft whispering in the writer’s ear. When I was 12 I read Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space” in an anthology of fantastic tales. The story is set in Massachusetts northwest of Boston. I found the story so terrifying that I couldn’t sleep with the book in my bedroom. I didn’t even like it in the house. I can’t say that Lovecraft consciously influenced me in my writing, but I expect some of my work, like The Burn Palace, was filtered through his example.
Zola: The story involves, among other things, Satanism, the medical industry, police procedure, yoga, shape-shifters, Wicca, and genetics. How much research did you do? Was any of it immersive: did you attend a Black Mass and/or a yoga class? What’s the oddest thing you discovered?
SD: The Internet has made everything much easier. What used to take me days now takes me minutes. However, I interviewed a state policemen and a fellow with a sheep farm, and I prowled through the physical setting until I knew it well. I’ve also had a lot of experience with small towns. I did not go to a Black Mass—I would have been too frightened—but I’ve gone to yoga classes.
What I found odd were the number of websites all over the world devoted to Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, Satanists, vampires, and other groups of the Left Hand Path. This includes dating sites. I expect that I shouldn’t have found this odd; it only indicated that the depth of my ignorance was even greater than I had thought.
Zola: Stephen King gave the book a pretty awesome review. What did you think when you first read it? How did he come across the book?
SD: Stephen King is a very generous man, and he reads a huge amount of stuff. He is also a very busy man. When I read his letter, I was rather stunned. Actually, I remain stunned as well as very grateful. My editor at Blue Rider Press had asked for the names of other writers who might read my book and my agent suggested King. So when I received his letter—sent from King to his editor to my editor to my agent and then to me—it was a total surprise.
Zola: You don’t just write thrillers; you’re also an award-winning poet. Does one help the other? Do you have different working methods for each?
SD: I suppose my poetry and novels (not all are thrillers) help one another in being devoted to metaphor, and they also expand my sense of what is possible in the English sentence. Otherwise they have little in common.
Usually I’ll begin a poem in longhand and then switch to a computer, while novels always begin on a computer and formerly a typewriter.
One is always writing a sort of autobiography even if the writing seems to have nothing to do with one’s life. So the experiences that feed my poetry also feed the fiction. The two genres are very different for me and seem to use different parts of my brain, but I avoid questioning the process too much for fear of breaking something. I need to continue seeing it as a gift and not as a calculation.
Zola: What are your favorite thrillers? Can you recommend any readers might not be familiar with?
SD: I don’t read as many thrillers as I used to. At the moment, I’m reading all of the novels of José Saramago, but I expect his novel Blindness could be considered a thriller. However, I’ve also been rereading a few of Adam Hall’s 19 Quiller novels, which are extremely well written, fast-paced, and suspenseful. I like them as much now as I did 40 years ago. Adam Hall, as I’m sure you know, was one of nine pseudonyms of Elleston Trevor, which was itself a pseudonym, given that he was born Trevor-Dudley Smith. Apart from the Quiller novels, he wrote at least 33 other novels, 20 children’s books and six plays.
Other mystery or espionage novelists I like are Michael Innes, George Simenon and Eric Ambler, but I read them all long ago, though I still find Simenon novels that I had missed. He wrote over 80 novels with Detective Maigret and more than 200 other very good novels. The master detective novelist for me is still Raymond Chandler who I have often reread. His Detective Marlowe is perhaps the best of the existential-loner righters of justice.
I also read a lot of history, which I expect affects my writing with its lessons in causality.
This article was updated on September 29, 2014
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.