October 31, 2016

Nothin' Fancy About Necromancy: an interview with Nicholas Kaufmann, author of "In the Shadow of the Axe"

About Nicholas Kaufmann's In the Shadow of the AxeThe year is 1847, and Kasch Möllhausen has returned to the small German mountain village of Helmburg in disgrace. Kicked out of the Swiss boarding school where he was unforgivably abandoned by his father, Luther Möllhausen, his humiliating homecoming is further complicated by the news that Luther has died. Worse, Kasch learns that the father he has come to despise instructed the village elders not to inform Kasch of his death or invite him back for the funeral. 

But not everyone hates Luther as much as Kasch does. To the people of Helmburg, Luther was a hero. Shortly before Kasch was born, Luther led an uprising against the Necromancer, a mysterious figure who lived in a castle high in the mountains and preyed mercilessly upon the villagers. It was Luther who struck the final blow and put an end to the Necromancer's reign of terror. 

But Kasch finds Helmburg is still a haunted village. The ghosts of the Necromancer's victims have begun appearing at night, and the old survivors of the uprising are being killed one by one, their bodies chopped to pieces. With the help of Hahn Gehrig, the elderly village doctor, and Liese Maentel, Kasch's childhood love, he sets out to discover if the Necromancer is still alive—which would prove once and for all that his father was no hero—or if someone else is responsible for the murders, a madman living among them with no conscience or mercy. The terrifying truth he uncovers will change Helmburg forever—because the past leaves a long shadow, and the axe has only just begun to fall. 

Gef: What was the spark that got you into writing In the Shadow of the Axe?

Nick: I started writing the novel back in 2006, ten years ago now, so unfortunately I can't remember all of the influences that came together to plant this idea in my head. But one thing I do remember is that I wanted to see if I could recapture in prose the feeling of watching one of those grand old Hammer horror movies. You know, old ruined castles and cobwebs and frightened villagers plotting in the local tavern. It's why I decided to set the novel in the mid-nineteenth century and chose a remote German village for the location. I was trying to recreate the kind of locale that often appeared in those Hammer movies, especially the Christopher Lee Dracula films, which have always been a cultural touchstone for me. Hopefully I've succeeded.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character? It would seem the remoteness of a village in the rugged terrain of southern Germany lends itself to something sinister.

Nick: To me, setting is hugely important, as vital to a story as any character or plot beat. In my Trent novels -- DYING IS MY BUSINESS and DIE AND STAY DEAD -- I used my own city, New York City, as the setting because I know it so well. I wanted New York City to come alive for the reader as much as, hopefully, the characters did. I was gratified to see that most of the reviews picked up on this, with some reviewers going so far as to call New York City itself one of the characters. With IN THE SHADOW OF THE AXE, the small German mountain village of Helmburg is isolated and agrarian and lives in the shadow, at times literally, of its difficult and tragic past. Its isolation has left it steeped in tradition and superstition at a time when the rest of Europe is shedding the cloak of irrationality and progressing toward scientific reason, which makes it the perfect setting for a story that's really about the clash between old and new generations, between the fears of the past and the desire of the present to move past them.

Gef; I've seen a couple places make mention of the old Hammer horror films--heck, Laird Barron even did in his introduction to the novel--in describing this story you've written. 

Nick: Definitely, although I think some of those old Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe movies snuck in there as inspiration, too. Those gorgeous matte paintings of crumbling castles atop the cliffs. They don't make 'em like that anymore!

Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous books?

Nick: IN THE SHADOW OF THE AXE was much more of an atmosphere piece than anything I had written before, at the time. Atmosphere is extremely important in horror, of course, but pretty much everything I had written before AXE was set in contemporary times, which doesn't lend itself quite as well to spooky fog and abandoned castles. So I wanted to try my hand at something a little more iconic, a little more Gothic. There's a touch of cosmic horror in there as well, especially when we learn more about the Necromancer who once terrorized Helmburg, and cosmic horror is something I've always been fascinated with but hadn't really tried my hand at before.

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Nick: I'm more of a micro-researcher. When I come to a point where I need more information, I'll stop writing to do an online search. Most of the time I'm not looking for anything too extensive, so a quick Google search will usually turn up what I need. (I say quick, but we all know that sometimes it's a time-consuming rabbit hole that's all too easy to tumble down.) In this case, because I knew this was going to be a very stylized version of a small German village, I didn't need it to be 100% accurate. I only needed verisimilitude here and there, such as with certain words or customs. However, one unexpected and interesting thing I learned about during my research was the animosity between Germany and France during that time period, which wound up playing an important role in the story.

Gef: If I'm not mistaken, this is your first book to come out through Crossroad Press. Was this something you approached them with, or did David contact about working on something?

Nick: You're right, IN THE SHADOW OF THE AXE is my first book with Crossroad Press. I approached David Niall Wilson about it, rather than vice-versa. As I mentioned, I originally wrote this back in 2006 but I had the hardest time finding a publisher for it. It's a Gothic atmosphere piece that takes place in nineteenth century Germany, so it's not exactly a highly commercial property. Also, as a short novel it's kind of an oddball length, which is something most publishing houses aren't happy with. All of that conspired to make it a hard sell. I had a few near misses with some great publishers, which was frustrating. Laird Barron, who was kind enough to write the Introduction for the novel, was an early supporter of it, talking it up on his blog and checking in with me to see how I was getting on with finding a publisher. Finally, Chet Williamson recommended Crossroad Press to me as a possibility. I knew they specialized in bringing authors' out of print backlists back into print primarily as e-books, although they also do print and audio editions, but I didn't realize they also did new works until I saw that they'd published John McIlveen's HANNAHWHERE. So I queried David and thankfully he accepted the novel. It's out now as an e-book, and there should be a print edition down the road as well.

Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer thus far?

Nick: Grueling.

Gef: What would you say is the biggest misconception of the horror genre?

Nick: The biggest misconception of the horror genre is the same misconception that plagues horror films: that it's all garbage and exploitative violence. Even though horror authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub are routinely on the bestseller lists, there are still people out there who think horror is unworthy of being read. It's got a lot of bad books in its history to shake off, I suppose, but then so does every other genre. I'm not sure why horror still gets such a bad rap. However, there's recently been a rise in weird fiction and literary horror that's making us all proud, and I hope to see that trend continue.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Nick: I'm currently working on a novel that I think may be my best one yet. It's called THE SCARRED MAN, and it's about a killer for hire who's caught between four warring magical families and who is desperately trying to keep a thirteen-year-old girl alive because she has a secret the families would kill for. Remarkably, despite its contemporary setting in the Hudson Valley, I managed to fit a crumbling old castle into this one as well! As for how folks can keep up, they can always visit my website (www.nicholaskaufmann.com), or hang out with me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/TheKaufmann) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/nicholas.kaufmann.79).

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