Books In Conversation
DAVID PEAK with Joseph Scapellato
(Word Horde, 2018)
I know David Peak through my brother Mario. The two of them met in the early 2000s, in a creative writing class at Columbia College Chicago, and they’ve been best friends ever since. For years, Mario would tell me about David—how great of a writer he was, how we all needed to get together—but for whatever reason, it took a long time for the three of us to be in the same place at the same time. And then it took a long time for the three of us to be in the same place at the same time when David and Mario weren’t hyper-competitively playing video games. But it finally happened and, as my brother guessed, David and I hit it off. (At my brother’s wedding last year, David and I both read speeches, back to back.)
David is a prolific writer. What I find incredibly impressive, though, is how he continues to write many different kinds of books—novels, story collections, poetry collections, and even a critical tract on the philosophy of horror. Whatever the genre, David imbues his work with lively, kinetic language—his prose always generates momentum—and at the same time, he’s committed to honoring ideas, to finding compelling, character-centered ways to investigate mind-warping concepts.
This is certainly true of Corpsepaint, his current novel (Word Horde, 2018). Corpsepaint follows a pair of existentially haunted American black metal musicians as they travel to a reclusive Ukrainian cult’s secluded compound to record a comeback album. Things get stranger and darker from there.
This “black metal motor” rips along at an incredible pace, carrying the reader into different way stations. Corpsepaint kicks off in a tragicomic mode, with the misanthropic antics of the musicians, then shifts to a kind of optimistic pessimism with the Ukrainian cult’s fatalistic but idealistic commune, and finally accelerates straight off a cliff into a chasm of cosmic horror—with murder and madness and Armageddon. While reading Corpsepaint, I kept thinking of the bleakly psychedelic art common to heavy metal album covers—those riotous landscapes teeming with the grotesque, eerily lit with dark light. I’ve always wanted to read a novel that lives in that landscape. Now I have, and you can, too.
David Peak and I corresponded over email. We talked about the process of writing Corpsepaint, the role that black metal plays in the book, and what horror can do that other genres can’t.
Joseph Scapelatto (Rail): Can you begin by discussing the process of writing Corpsepaint? I’d love to hear about your initial idea—did this novel start with a character, with black metal, with cosmic horror? And how did the concept change as you worked your way through the first draft?
David Peak: I have a really good friend who I don’t see as much as I’d like, but when we do hang out we like to do movie marathons. We watch a lot of Italian horror from the ’70s and ’80s, stuff like The Church, and Opera, and Inferno. We also like to watch moody stuff like The Keep and Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. There’s something about that last one in particular—the photography of the Carpathian Mountains, the use of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold—that captures the majesty of black metal. I’m thinking about the album covers of Necrolord [pseudonym of Kristian Wåhlin]—that kind of stuff. One night we watched Herzog’s Nosferatu and we turned the sound off and played Ulver’s Bergtatt and the imagery and the music just clicked. Later, I started to fixate on combining these two things. So I decided to write a book that captured that feeling, that particular mood.
The original idea was actually about a black metal band climbing the Carpathians. But then one night I had a Romanian cab driver and we were talking and he told me that only old people and American tourists climbed the Carpathians. The whole idea was stupid. I started to hate it. But then, over time, that idea evolved and turned into something a little more interesting. I wrote an outline and then I wrote the opening chapter and then the project stalled for nearly half a year because I got really into a video game. Finally, I got my shit together and sat down to write the whole thing and finished a draft in 14 months because I have no life.
The point of all this is that the concept for the book was always changing. I like to build the structure of the novel first. There has to be a complete vision of the thing before I can even start. I have to be able to see the whole thing. After that, my drafting process is more exploratory. I tend to follow my instinct when I’m writing—just go by feel. I like to surprise myself because I try to have fun when I write. Unfortunately, this means that I often stray off into weird details and write a bunch of scenes that have no purpose that I then have to delete because they don’t work as part of the whole. They don’t feel right. Sometimes I learn new things from these explorations. Even the stuff that does feel right sometimes doesn’t work with my idea of what the novel is supposed to be, with that overall vision. So I’ll have to go back and make structural adjustments that allow for the new material. It can be a laborious process, but it’s efficient. After that first draft was finished, nothing structural changed at all. It was built with intent.
Rail: One of the many impressive things about this novel is how it so gracefully uses character to shift tone. For example, we begin with the darkly comedic misadventures of Roland and Max as they bumble through Chicago and Prague; then we’re dropped into the idealistic world of Seph’s commune, with all of its grim hope; and as the main characters convene on the commune, and one of them undergoes a terrifying transformation, we find that we’ve woken up into a landscape of cosmic horror, one that the novel takes very seriously. What’s your approach to writing character, and/or your approach to writing tone?
Peak: I try to respect my characters as if they were real people. You know, before I kill them. But seriously, I think them as living, breathing people with memories and hopes and maybe even acid reflux and lower back pain. If you have a sense of the kind of life a person has lived then you likely know what they’re afraid of, the things that make them tick. Most importantly you know what they believe in and how those beliefs might drive them to do things that are difficult for others to understand. That’s the kind of stuff that sets stories in motion.
Tone is something else entirely. I care about it far more than I’ll ever care about characters, because ultimately characters are just moving parts in a machine—but tone is the way the machine hums. And if the machine hums just right you can tell it’s been well calibrated. The difficulty there lies in the nature of novel writing, which is all stops and starts: dipping in and out of the work for weeks, months, even years. It’s difficult to sustain. And so, tone is the first thing I’m searching for when I pick up where I left off.
If you can get that right—and keep the feeling of the narrative consistent—everything else will just fall into place and do what it needs to do.
Rail: This novel is just as concerned with the “ordinary horror” of the human condition—the anxious, nihilistic dread that many of the characters feel—as it is with the “extraordinary horror” of that which transcends the human condition—pure cosmic horror, with supernatural forces interceding in human affairs. Do you see these two kinds of horror as related? How do you see them operating, together, in this novel?
Peak: I do think they’re related, yeah. Cosmic horror cannot exist—at least not as we recognize it—without some human corollary. Look, I hate being a human and I hate writing about humans as much as anyone, but they still need to be there for this kind of thing to work. There has to be somebody present to serve as a conduit for the horror. Without the person there is nothing to respond to, there is no way for the horror to resonate in the reader.
Cosmic horror is really about perception. It’s about uncovering the limits of that comprehension, seeking to go beyond, seeing things for what they really are—not what you want them to be. I’ve said a million times that horror is only concerned with reality. It’s concerned with the way things are, how we perceive the world, and how that world gives way to the world that lies submerged below—the world that is unknowable. We’re all mixed up somewhere in that equation, experiencing something, experiencing being alive.
I very much intended this book to function as both mundane horror—the dread and loathing of addiction and violence and self-hatred—and as cosmic horror—some kind of malignant machinations beyond our understanding. Those two things needed to work in tandem: one occulting the other, one contrasting the other. The effect of this—at least as I intended it—was to create a sense of horror with real depth, something inescapable physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There can be no exit, you know? Otherwise it’s just a fantasy.
Rail: What can the horror genre do that other genres can’t?
Peak: I’ve said this before, but: engaging with horror is engaging with reality. Its purpose is to engage with the way things are rather than the way things appear to be. The aesthetics of horror reflect its meaning—it’s self-reflexive. This is a unique experience. The very possibility of the unknown, or the idea that what we know to be real can be unreal, is itself horrific.
This is why there has to be some larger vision for horror to work. Horror must engage with that which cannot be—the shambling thing that cannot exist. You can’t just have violence for the sake of violence—that’s the most pedestrian thing in the world. You can’t just be extreme for the sake of being extreme. That’s just so unbelievably boring. That’s so utterly normal. I mean, look at the world—violence and extremity is what’s normal. That’s what’s out there. Living in the world, you hear the most depraved, unimaginable things possible—you hear stuff that’s so twisted it’s just beyond imagination. If you’re just turning a mirror to that stuff, you’re still only focusing on the way things appear to be, you know? You have to dig deeper.
This idea of digging deeper—it’s not always straightforward. It’s different for everybody. So it’s important to think about what that means on a personal level. Not just knowing what’s scary, but why it’s scary, you know? You need to have a philosophy of horror to make it work and that philosophy needs to hold together. That’s what horror does that other genres can’t—if you do it right you’ll eventually wind up engaging with a philosophy of what is real.
Rail: Some readers might say the opposite—that horror turns away from what’s real, that hordes of zombies, sophisticatedly sadistic vampires, or ancient alien gods who maneuver to make humanity go mad are compelling because they permit a reader to escape the ordinary. What’s your take on this argument? What do you mean by “what is real”?
Peak: I know it’s counterintuitive. It seems illogical to say that we need to engage with fictional creations to better understand what is real. But everything around us affects us and operates in ways we cannot see, in ways that we will never understand. The objects that surround us have their own reality that we will never know. That’s what’s real, not the petty concerns of human existence. Horror is speculative in nature. We make up stories about squid-faced deities and monsters and cosmic annihilation because it’s an exercise in filling in the blanks. In doing this, we seek to access the noumenal beyond the phenomenal. One of the primary tasks of horror is to pull back the veil and offer a glimpse of whatever it is that lies beyond—to put humans in their place. It’s ultimately life affirming, reading stories about your own meaninglessness.
Rail: One of the many things that I admire about this novel is its gleefully maniacal marriage to black metal. Because of this, the reader is given a marvelous “insider’s look” into the subculture associated with this music. Can you talk about your relationship to black metal? And how the task of writing Corpsepaint deepened, changed, or otherwise affected this relationship?
Peak: Black metal has been my favorite genre of music for 15 years—ever since I was first exposed to those classic second-wave bands. That whole time and place will always be my favorite, albums like In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, those first three Ulver albums. Later I fell in love with Agalloch and Leviathan and Summoning, Blut Aus Nord’s Memoria Vetusta albums and Deathspell Omega—all of this remains some of the most adventurous, impressive, and memorable music I have ever heard.
My relationship to black metal is personal and I am protective of it in the way I imagine a lot of people are protective of their relationship to black metal. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s fine. Hopefully the people who read Corpsepaint recognize that my love is genuine and that it’s coming from a place of appreciation. That’s important to me. I didn’t want to look down on these characters. I didn’t want to resort to camp and caricature. That would be too easy.
Really, writing this book was my way of contributing to something I love. It’s the only way I knew how to give back. I look at it like it’s a goblet of blood that I want to share with the world.
Rail: In my reading of Corpsepaint, the book exists at the intersection of “literary” and “genre”—largely because it’s so interested in interrogating the conventions of horror. What do the categories of “literary” and “genre” mean, if anything, to you? (Did you keep them in mind while you were writing this novel?)
Peak: They don’t mean anything to me. My favorite horror writing is literary, and my favorite literary fiction is horrific. Thomas Ligotti writes literary fiction. John Hawkes writes horror fiction. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
A lot of so-called literature that purports to say profound things about what it means to be human does anything but—it’s escapist. Mainstream fiction today reads like soft science fiction. It’s like, “Okay, here’s a cool concept—let’s run with it for an entire book.” It’s fucking boring. A lot of literature is about people doing things to get what they want or it’s about people getting what they think they want only to realize that it isn’t what they want. It’s mindless. It’s automatic. And a lot of so-called horror is recycled and, I don’t know, something that just taps into fears or tropes or monsters that have been mined to exhaustion. It’s important for writers—whatever label they write under—to try to do something different.
I don’t know if what I’m doing is different. I just try to focus on the stuff that interests me. I like Shirley Jackson and Anna Kavan. I like to read phenomenology and metaphysics because I want the world around me to inspire awe. Hopefully my writing reflects that sense of awe.
Rail: Speaking of phenomenology and metaphysics, you’ve written a nonfiction book on the philosophy of horror: The Spectacle of the Void. Did writing this work influence your process for writing Corpsepaint in any way? Or is the scholarly/theoretical lens stowed away in a different part of your writerly self?
Peak: They’re certainly written in different modes, but I do think they complement one another. Anyone who has read The Spectacle of the Void will likely see extra dimensions of meaning in Corpsepaint, and vice versa. Ultimately, it was important to me that I wrote Corpsepaint with no argument in mind. The last thing I wanted to do was convey a message. Like I said earlier, I wanted this book to function as an exploration. It’s about people who uncover something terrifying because they’re pushing themselves beyond the familiar. It’s only fitting that I go through that along with them.
Rail: What was the hardest thing about writing this novel?
Peak: I guess just staying true to the original vision for the book. It was difficult to sort of walk the line—thinking about making the story accessible for people who don’t know much about black metal, and keeping things interesting for people who do. And so I just said fuck it and focused on the vision at its most pure. Then I did the best I could to translate that vision to the page. You’ll never please everyone, so why bother trying?
Rail: What fiction have you been reading lately that’s terrified you?
Peak: There have been two books recently that terrified me. The first was Jac Jemc’s novel The Grip of It, which is just amazing on both a technical level and a personal level. It’s written so beautifully. Honestly, it’s very nearly as good as Shirley Jackson, which is some of the highest praise I can give. It does everything the “haunted house” novel is supposed to do and so much more—a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier, about doing something different. The whole thing feels like an inescapable nightmare. And the second is Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism, which is a great collection of interrelated stories that deal with things like human simulacra and altered realities. It’s the best collection I’ve read in the last few years. Padgett’s voice is absolutely commanding and I’m expecting big things from him in the years to come. Cannot recommend it enough.
Rail: What are you working on next?
Peak: I’m in the process of outlining a new novel. It’s maybe 70% of the way there. I’m hoping to start drafting in January. It’s about witches who live in the woods, small-town mythmaking, LSD psychosis, and a bunch of other fun stuff. If Corpsepaint was my black metal novel, then this one will be my funeral doom novel. So far the process has been different from everything I’ve done before, which is a little nerve wracking. But you could say that about every new book I’ve started. That’s what keeps things interesting for me. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t interesting for me. For now, that’s what keeps me going.