It’s a story as old as civilization: a man ventures into the woods to seek his fortune, and finds something menacing and uncanny there. In the case of Steve Himmer‘s new novel Scratch, that man is Martin Blaskett, a man in the process of building several houses near a forest, and the uncanny is in the form of the title character, an ageless, amorphous creature that can enter dreams and alter bodies. There’s plenty of danger to be found in Scratch, but among the most ominous aspects of it are the ways in which is questions the very nature of who we are. I’d talked with Himmer last year about his previous novel Fram, and I checked back in with him to learn about the history of this (literally) haunting work.
Scratch contains an ancient supernatural being, bodies transformed against their will, and an ominous sense of place. Would you classify this book as a horror novel, or as something else entirely?
Honestly, I struggle to know quite what to call it. I wanted it to be a monster story from the day I sat down to start writing, even though it ended up a very different novel to what I had in mind. I’ve called it folk horror, which doesn’t feel quite right either, and I’ve thought of it as an attempt at a magic realism organic to North American folklore and forests. Maybe I should just call it a “weird forest novel,” because while that isn’t a genre it’s a kind of fiction I’m always looking for. Stories that take wilderness, and wildness, seriously as more than a backdrop or a convenient way to echo the emotional lives of the characters. I want novels that are wild themselves, in which a reader can’t predict where it’s going. I can never find enough weird forest novels to read so this is me trying to write one.
I’m not too bothered about classification, but I know some readers have been frustrated by genre-confusion in my novels and wanting them to do things they don’t — whether it’s being not quite a horror novel this time, or not quite a spy thriller with the last one. I can’t help being reminded of meeting a novelist I really admire a couple of years ago, and telling him how inspiring it is that each of his books is so different from what came before. And he replied that it’s the worst thing he’s done for his career.
Where did Scratch begin for you? Was the title character always the narrator?
Yes, Scratch was always the narrator, and for several drafts there were many more narrator interruptions and digressions. To the point I went out of my way to make that voice deliberately obnoxious and disruptive of the reader’s ability to move ahead with the story. Then I thought better of it.
But it started, really, when I read Molly Gloss’ brilliant forest novel Wild Life, then saw an interview about it in which she said, “Here’s what it comes down to: I want to live in a world in which it’s possible to believe in giants living deeply secret in the forests. When the wild woods are entirely gone, that possibility won’t exist for any of us anymore.”
That made me start thinking of a story in which the forest looks out at us instead of the other way around, and it grew into a wild narrator unimpressed by the things people (people in fiction, anyway) tend to think are important. I’ve joked a few times that Scratch is my “Houellebecq in the wilderness” narrator, which is a big, big stretch in terms of material but sincere in the way I hope readers might be made uncomfortable by a storyteller who doesn’t find their lives all that exciting. The misanthropy of his fiction I find compelling, even when it makes me squirm, though in Scratch’s case it’s more disinterest or ambivalence than anything malicious. I’m interested in what stories look like when human experience isn’t taken for granted as their necessary center, and what happens when that humanist assumption of fiction gets ruptured. Something like what JM Ledgard calls “planetary fiction,” if I understand him correctly.
Throughout the book, characters muse on identity–whether it’s a transformed human embracing their new identity as an animal or Martin’s restlessness due in part to an absent father. Was this always present as an element in the story, or did it enter the picture later?
It was always there but mattered more over time. I wrote the first version of Scratch years ago, before my first two published novels, then came back to it much later and changed it in some big ways. The shapeshifting and characters trying to remake themselves were already present but in the meantime I’d read a terrific book by Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History, and had also become excited about Glenn Albrecht’s idea of “solastalgia.” So between those two ideas — the pull of longing for a place that was never quite as you imagine it, versus longing for a place that has changed around you until it’s more or less gone — I found a way of thinking about what I wanted the novel to be. I tried to pull those dual tensions out when I came back to it. And I had an image of someone or something drifting flâneurishly in a forest environment instead of an urban one, alienated and not quite belonging for human and inhuman characters alike, so all the transformations and restlessness are probably the outcome of that.
I also got curious about trying to take some clichéd elements that are the stuff so much literary fiction — the absent father, the distant mother, the lonely child, the grizzled old man, the big taboo of writing a character’s dreams, all the things that get taken for granted as “definitive” of a character’s life and important because of it — to play with what those clichés could look like through a strange narrator’s eyes. Did it work? I don’t know. Maybe those things are too bogged down to be pulled from the cultural muck and refreshed. But I had fun trying.
As with many books in which creepy things take place in the woods, the location of the novel plays a huge role in establishing tension. Did you have a real-life model in mind for the woods in and around which this book is set?
I did. Not a specific town or spot but I tried to be accurate with flora and fauna and other natural elements that place the story regionally for a reader who recognizes them. Though there’s only one quick moment in the novel that says so, and it’s a couple of lines I put in and cut out and put back many times. I’m not too concerned with whether readers “know” what place I had in mind, and I might prefer them to see the story in whichever forest has mattered to them, in their own lives. To tap into their own memories of being deep in the woods, if they have those memories. I hope they do. And I hope they feel the ways in which those memories of forests, or of imaginary forests, are also made of all the stories and folklore and films we absorb — all the cultural signals, alongside the wild ones.
Both Scratch and your previous novel, Fram, feature characters from a more built-up part of the world encountering dangers in the midst of nature that they hadn’t anticipated. What draws you to this as a theme?
I wish I knew! And my first novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is like that to some degree, too, with much milder dangers. It was a long time before I realized my characters rarely spend much time indoors, and even when I deliberately try to write something that makes them stay in — which I did with Fram, until I couldn’t — they always seem to make their way outside again. I’m not interested in simplified stories of binaries between “good natural world” vs. “bad built world,” and I hope I’m not writing them — I read a review that said I was and it stung. It’s the interplay I’m excited about, the way wilderness is beautiful and enriching and restorative but also dangerous and uncomfortable and inconvenient. I do spend a lot of time wishing I could be in wilder places than I usually am, but many times in the middle of a long, cold, rainy hike or a miserable night in a tent I would have preferred to be in a well-lit dry house watching a big loud TV. Watching a coyote trot past my window, perhaps (which does happen sometimes on my street, thank goodness). It fascinates me the way pylons or stone walls can make a landscape more complicated, for better or worse, and the way we never encounter even the wildest, most remote place without seeing it through lenses of history and technology and folklore and all our other ways of knowing. Whether we like it or not, it’s the world we live in and I want to read and write fiction that won’t deny that.
What draws you to stories of the uncanny? With Halloween fast approaching, are there any scary stories that particularly influenced or affected you when you first read them?
I love the way scary stories — especially monster stories — reveal the fears and anxieties of a particular cultural moment. And I really love the way archetypes in those stories, and remakes, can show how those fears shift and change. While I wrote the first version of Scratch I was teaching a course about all of that, looking at originals and retellings of monster stories side by side in their cultural contexts, and it was so much fun.
I will gladly watch the absolute worst of monster movies (shout out to From Hell It Came!), but it’s the quiet scares that unsettle me most. I remember being seriously freaked out by Stephen King’s story “The Jaunt,” in fifth or sixth grade. That’s the first psychological terror I remember feeling as a reader, and knowing it was something different from the fright of shocks and spectacles. And his “Survivor Type,” too. What I remember about both of them is being scared by what wasn’t even shown in the story. It was all about the implications of what had occurred — the more I imagined what the characters had done, and imagined myself enduring the events of those stories, the scarier they became. My favorites now work the same way, like Johanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain, which isn’t even a horror novel, really, but left me spinning out the potential aftermath in my imagination and going back and forth between being on the side of the “monster” or the side of the human characters beset by it. She’s so good at planting those disconcerting seeds, not just in Birdbrain but all her books. I hope Scratch could sneak up on someone like that, not with blood and guts but with unease over what could come after the immediate story and what it might mean in the reader’s own world. Knowing someone was still worrying weeks later about where the novel left them would make me very pleased.