As a tremendous admirer of the uncanny in fiction, I ended up devouring Simon Jacobs‘s new novel String Follow. It’s a story of youthful suburban anomie, punk scenes, and class divides — all told from the perspective of a sinister and inhuman force that’s making its way through a small town. I talked with Jacobs about the process of writing the novel, the role punk plays in his work, and how he’d classify this decidedly unclassifiable book — among other subjects.
Both String Follow and Palaces are set on the periphery of punk scenes, albeit in very different contexts. What draws you to writing about these communities, and to what extent were you alluding to pre-existing scenes versus creating entirely new ones?
I’m drawn to writing about midwestern punk scenes because those were formative spaces for me as a young adult, and which felt both most emotionally resonant and rife with possibility to me as a teenager – as a style of art and form of community, it’s where I feel like I found a lot of anchors that I’ve carried through as I’ve got older.
Palaces is pretty explicitly connected to the punk scene around Indiana/Ohio circa 2010 – 2012ish (to the extent that I even borrowed some band names, sorry Secondhand Destruction). In String Follow it’s more of an elaboration: Adena is an invented town, but it’s based on Dayton, Ohio, where I grew up, and so is full of fun analogues (Dayton’s former metalcore-y venue the Attic has been transmuted into the Quonset Hut, etc) – but I think punk shows in VFW halls and church basements and random backyards are a staple the midwest over. It is our unique American terrain!
After reading String Follow, I was curious — how do you find yourself describing it? As horror fiction? As weird fiction? As something entirely different?
This is a hard question! I’ve described it as a coming of age via cosmic horror, but that’s probably putting too fine a point on it. In a lot of ways, it’s just a normal teen novel, with regular complex dirtbag teens, but it feels like horror because being a teenager feels horrible, and I tried to capture that accurately. It uses horror tropes to tell (what I believe is) a fairly grounded story – it’s a teen novel written like a horror novel.
Honestly, Toby, I reflect a lot on something you wrote in a review of Palaces on Tor.com from 2018, describing an image in the book: “That’s one person’s dystopia and another’s summer day.” It all comes down to the framing.
What were some of the challenges of writing a book with a narrator who is both a collective consciousness and not human?
The book is narrated by a collectively-voiced, otherworldly ‘force’, who for the most part is a disembodied presence and only interacts directly with the characters in subtle, subliminal ways at certain moments. As it turns out, it actually makes things way easier when you have a narrator who’s effectively a ghost, because you can treat the narrator like a movie camera: jump from character to character, zoom way in or way out, cut to other perspectives, turn away, etc.
There’s that sequence in the Evil Dead movies where the camera rushes through the trees towards the cabin at night like an evil wind, showing the incorporeal malicious force that animates the dead bearing down on the characters – I think about that image a lot in String Follow, the camera as this unruly, aggressive narrator. (I guess that’s an answer to your previous question, too.)
That narrator choice was also a great excuse for the hyper close-up omniscient voice, which is a style that I love – closely observed but self-aware enough for some detachment, for some humor. I love books with unreliable or indefinite narrators, where the framing of the story tells you more than the narrator themselves, like you have an obscuring veil between you and the story. Rachel Cusk’s Outline, all of Kazuo Ishiguro, Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina – they were all rattling around my head as this book was being written as much as IT and My Chemical Romance.
In the novel’s acknowledgements, you write about the novel’s earliest readers helping you “see what else was possible.” How did this novel evolve over the course of writing it?
The first complete and final draft of the novel came together relatively quickly (for me), over the span of about a year, in 2017. At that time, it was a dense, ferocious, sparse thing – barely 200 pages. The plot and central cast was the same, but it left no breathing room for the reader or the characters – just a relentless forward plunge of disaster until it screeched into the ending. A haunted, harsh and angry work, and profoundly ungenerous to the reader.
Over time, with each reader, the novel got longer, the cast expanded, and the novel’s world became richer and more emotionally complex. Characters accumulated more history, I wrote more scenes that took place outside of the 2-week span of the main Bad Stuff narrative, and generally gave their relationships (and the story itself) more depth and history, allowing the reader to get a sense of the world as it was for these kids before ‘we’ (the narrator) arrived. As I did so, with each revision I was also refining and shaping the book’s formless narrator, coaxing it to the surface to allow more readers in and offer better signposts towards what the book was trying to say, and to add more little glimpses of light among the darkness.
Four years or so after I first declared it ‘finished,’ the book had gone from less than 60,000 words to 100,000 – which, stingy writer that I am, was never the kind of book I envisioned writing. But it is unquestionably a more approachable, empathetic, and ultimately hopeful work because of it (despite the violence). I’m glad it took as long to bake as it did.
The structure of String Follow moves across a network of characters, and sometimes illustrates how characters — correctly or incorrectly — view one another. What were the challenges of working with a canvas this large?
In a way, the large cast was liberating because it allowed me to explore the same thematic currents from so many different perspectives, and explore that network of identities in relation to each other. I’d never written something with this many characters, and the biggest challenge was logistically just keeping track of everyone (emotionally and spatially), and ensuring the reader could do so as well. At one point I had a massive timeline drawn out on graph paper of the 18ish days in which the story takes place, showing where each character was at a given time and date, and who they were with. One of my favorite days was mapping out where everyone lived in my fake suburb, how far from each other, and figuring out what kind of cars they drove or had access to, or how they would get from one place to another.
There’s a lot having to do with class lurking below the surface of this novel. At what point in the writing of this did that element come into play?
Class was always a driving theme for me in writing the book, and for a while I kept it hidden (see me resisting my own best impulses two questions above). But it definitely got teased closer to the surface as the book expanded – that is, I decided to let my characters start noticing it too.
When I did, it brought forward how much class played into the way the narrator interacts with the kids: part of the narrator’s effect, or this presence’s effect, on the mostly privileged white kids in the novel is in realizing where they’ve unintentionally sat within this gross power structure, and what they choose to do with that awareness. Classic coming of age! What if you were the bully all along? What if you were the popular one?
How did you balance the realistic and uncanny elements found in String Follow?
My approach is that no matter what kind of fucked up shit your characters are experiencing in the text, it needs to feel absolutely grounded for them in the moment to work effectively for the reader.
So much of what I think of as ‘horror’ in the book is the characters experiencing something viscerally in their environment – smells, changes in the air, bodily contact – even if it’s not overtly supernatural or uncanny. There’s definitely a strand of something Lovecraftian there though, with the narrator acting as this kind of outer horror presence that the kids can’t properly articulate, but which they feel in their bodies and environment. That was a fun challenge of the book, trying to make an ambient threat feel present in every interaction.
I’m going back to an earlier question and answer here, but at my most stridently anti-genre I would argue that nothing uncanny or supernatural really happens in the book – it’s just written uncannily. Horror by vibes only.
What’s next for you?
I feel like String Follow brought me to the emotional breaking point, so I’m not rushing into anything. I need to guard my one precious and tender heart. So I’m still in the ‘crazed notes’ section of my next writing project, whatever it turns out to be. I have ideas for something about low-key time travel and collective trauma. But I also can’t seem to let my young obsessive midwestern protagonists go, so I’m simultaneously messing around with a project I will delicately describe here as ‘Kid Columbo’. Thank you for asking.
Image: Jenn Byrne Creative