David Peak has been writing and publishing novels, short stories and essays online and in print for the last 20 or so years. His books focus on the moment when people recognizable in our daily lives meet the unknown and are either torn asunder by it, or are transformed into something horrible and beautiful. Last year Peak published The World Below (Apocalypse Party), a midwestern gothic story of two long-feuding families, brought into conflict again when their children are caught up in an ritualistic occult murder mystery.
- Metaphysics, philosophy and the utility thereof in fiction writing
- Artificial intelligence
- Cosmic horror
- Emergent Christian Nationalism
- The James Webb Telescope
Are you drinking coffee right now?
It’s my fourth shot of espresso today. I’m on a five-shot regimen per day. I hit a wall if I don’t have coffee. I’ll be asleep in two hours.
If I had coffee right now I’d be up until three in the morning.
Sometimes you roll the dice. But my body is used to it at this point. If I want to read more than a couple of pages at night to fall asleep, I need to have a lot of caffeine in my body.
Do you get insomnia?
Yeah, always. My whole life.
Do you ever write at all when you’re having trouble sleeping?
No. When [I’m sleepless is when] I do all my reading because I work all day. So I’m okay with not sleeping. I have to read all the time. Otherwise, the writing doesn’t happen. I’m a reader before I’m a writer. Reading is my number one priority. I have to get that in, like, every day. There’s nothing going on in my brain if I’m not reading a couple of books.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book called Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009) by Graham Harmon, which is object-oriented ontology. Harmon’s whole thing is removing the human from the equation of philosophy and thinking about the reality of things themselves, a level of reality that we don’t have access to. I’m also reading a book of essays on Utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. And one of Karl Edward Wagner’s sword and sorcery novels. Kind of all over the place.
Do you read a lot of nonfiction?
Yeah, generally a 50/50 balance between fiction and nonfiction. I find they tend to inform each other. They stimulate me in different ways.
The closer I get to philosophy and metaphysics the more it becomes abstract and falls apart for me. What draws you to those subjects?
Specifically with Graham Harmon, he writes about these very speculative types of philosophy, and you wind up having to go through a lot of mental exercises to even think about what he’s talking about. Prince of Networks is about reality being composed of a network of actors. Things will have an effect on other things. Whole networks will have an effect on other networks. That doesn’t mean that everything is connected, but it means that things are connected to other things. And reality happens around us whether we bear witness to it or not.
That’s a really cool way to think about being alive. That immediately creates a sense of wonder for me. Like, a sense of awe. I’m just this small piece in this much larger thing that’s going on around me. And where you choose to put your attention will reveal certain things to you. And sometimes it will occlude other things.
I think of writing similarly. Choosing what to focus on, what details to show cause and effect. How all these things kind of function around us to form some concept of a life. So philosophy opens up a lot of doors for me to use that speculative part of my thinking. And fiction becomes a vehicle for answering some of those speculative questions. Fiction is how I go about filling in the blanks.
It seems like such a challenging thing to wrap your head around these huge concepts first and then dramatize them.
Yeah, and I don’t really like the idea of philosophical fiction. Like a Milan Kundera book or something, which is fine. Nothing against Milan Kundera, he wrote some great books, you know. But I don’t like the idea of a story functioning as grand philosophical statement.
I like when an underlying philosophy informs the fiction It’s beneath the surface. It doesn’t have any sort of agency or mission to it. That’s something that I picked up from for Brian Evenson. He’s talked about this where philosophy drives a lot of his fiction but it’s woven into it.
So what is what’s currently scaring the shit out of you right now?
Artificial intelligence is a big one. Not like in a Cyberdyne Industries type way. More this idea of the human removing itself from all the things that make it useful. There was always this idea that when machines first became integrated into our daily lives, they would free us up so we would have time to be more creative. They would do our work for us and we could focus on making art. And instead where they seem to be going with this they are removing the art making capacity from us and forcing us to just focus on doing work. And I think that’s all backward.
I think things like ChatGPT are existential to writing, to self-expression, to creating images that are informed by life experience as opposed to being recycled from other images. [To] write in a way where it connects with other people takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of investment, and you have to overcome a lot of self-doubt. You have to be brave. Nobody just starts writing and immediately creates something great. Most people never create anything great. But knowing this and returning to it again and again, day in and day out, that’s bravery.
A lot of people think, “Oh, I can’t do this,” or “I’m never going to get good at this,” or “it’s not worth my time investment.” So they start looking for ways to do it that take less time. And if you’re unwilling to go through that hard work then you’re losing out on the main value of writing as an exercise, which is finding that self-expression, that voice—that sense of bravery. You find what’s important to you. If you remove that from the process, you’re just saying what’s already been said.
The thing that troubles me about it is there’s just going to be a whole generation of people that are raised not knowing the difference between AI generated work and human generated work. To me there’s something subconsciously repulsive about all AI work that I don’t think they’ll ever be able to fix.
People are going to have varying levels of comfort with AI. Some people are going to wholly embrace it and have a lot of fun with it. A sort of the-constraints-set-you-free kind of approach. But for me, the AI thing seems purely commercially driven. It’s about investment and time and product and return. For me, the process is the product, like those two things are one in the same.
It feels like [with emergent AI] people are actually coming into contact with a lot of the themes cosmic horror deals with.
We’re facing these like really scary unknowns that come from this place we can’t even really conceptualize.
The fear there is that we transform into something we don’t recognize. Or we’re consumed by this thing that’s bigger than us—that’s indifferent to us.
Do you think cosmic horror is having a resurgence?
The resurgence has been around for a while at this point. Horror has always been something that people are drawn to, whatever the form. Horror stories are in some of the key texts that we think of as the root of our civilization. Whether or not they were called horror at the time is kind of beside the point.
We return to these things that frighten us or fascinate us or call us to question our own existence. But what happened over the past, maybe, ten or twenty years in writing specifically is that really good horror fiction started getting published and taken seriously. And I think the horror and the publishing boom of the 80s had to happen, and that all had to all collapse under its own weight before people realized like, okay, you can do this in a way where we take more time to do it right. These can be real stories. We can fill them with real characters that can have real dramatics. And we can make the writing just as good as anything you’d find in a novel put out by the big four.
A lot of that started on smaller presses. And it started catching on and gaining a lot of momentum. And now some of those people have been picked up by big presses. A lot of a lot of those people are really deserving. [There are] a lot of different voices happening in horror right now. Queer horror. Gay horror. Trans horror. Things are getting really, really interesting. Very diverse.
Cosmic horror is just one microgenre among many, which I see as part of the tradition of fiction. I do want to point out that I think cosmic horror is almost impossible to do on screen for various reasons. So it really is kind of relegated to the realm of writing. And I think that’s kind of the way it needs to be. So not that somebody won’t make a great cosmic horror movie, but I just don’t think it’s not in the DNA.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Panos Cosmatos when I was reading The World Below.
He’s the best. I’m definitely channeling a lot of that guy. So that’s cool that came across.
If you do [cosmic horror] right, you just wind up hinting at something beyond, you know, like something beyond comprehension. Going back to that sense of wonder and awe. It’s not something you have to show. It’s not the monster, it’s the implication of the monster. That’s really, really hard to do with movies and to do it right.
That sense of awe and wonder feels like really essential, it’s what we need, as people. And AI is never going to be able to deal with that,
It can’t get itself close to those outer limits of comprehension—and then look out into the beyond. It doesn’t speculate. It’s trapped in that network of things.
In the process of creation, you start writing and you have a plan in mind, and then like a couple of hours later, you’ve done something completely surprising. That’s really freeing and amazing. Like, “Wow. I was really lucky that I sat down a put this time down and surprised myself. I hope I can do this again,” you know? But there’s never a guarantee. I can’t see AI ever sitting down and surprising itself. It’s not sitting there cycling through its thoughts in the dark after it drank too much coffee, you know?
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing a novel. I just started in January, so it’s pretty slow going. Very broadly, it’s about people who want to pursue happiness in society at all costs, even if it means dehumanizing others and discarding them.
That’s why I’ve been reading those essays on utilitarianism, thinking about these ideas of people who want to do good in the world, people who want to have a positive effect and create happiness. What happens when people are convinced that they’re doing the right thing? But maybe they have the wrong reasons?
I’ve always been really fascinated by people who are out there, like, really thinking like, “okay, I have to do this for the good of everybody else, even if that means killing some people.” That is so profoundly crazy to me. So dangerous.
I’m thinking a lot about this emergence of Christian Nationalism in this country. And I really do believe that some of those people think they’re doing the right thing and they think that the ends will always justify the means because they’re saving souls.
I kind of grew up in that world. I knew truly malevolent people in my time in the Christian evangelical community. To them religion is just a tool of power. But then I knew people who recognize that spirituality is like a really important part of their lives, but they get they get caught up. Really toxic religions like evangelicalism, that’s one of the most nefarious things I think it does, it holds hostage like this crucial part of our existence. The need for community, the need for bonding around spirituality.
Exactly. Yeah. I like the idea of so-called good people being mixed up in that and grappling with those questions. I’m interested in people who are drawn to these things for the right reasons, and then kind of slipping down into these ethical rabbit holes and making decisions that they think are the right decisions. And then sometimes those have horrific outcomes. That’s good territory for fiction.
What were the ideas that were coming for The World Below?
My older brother died right after I published Corpsepaint (Word Horde, 2018). And he was really young—only 36. I had a really complicated reaction to his death for a number of reasons. And the grief I found myself experiencing was complex. I was in therapy at the time, trying to talk through all emotions I was having. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was getting really frustrated. I was stuck in these endless cycles of grief and self-loathing.
So I started working on The World Below, which originally was this really whacked-out Panos Cosmatos-type story about people like cutting off limbs and using them in rituals as a way of transcending time and space. But when I got into the writing, I started to realize the book wasn’t so much a drug thing as much as it was about people dealing with grief.
It started to align with what I was experiencing. It became about people who have lost things or who didn’t make the decisions they felt like they should have made and then they regret those decisions. They become trapped by that regret. They come trapped in their own faith. That thinking started to give the story a level of seriousness that was missing from my earlier ideas.
Listen, I don’t want to seem like I’m jeopardizing somebody’s death or exploiting it, you know? It was more like, the writing became this real kind of catharsis. And I wound up just letting it happen. I just followed it to see where it took me.
I never looked at the story as this negative thing. For me, it was this incredibly positive thing. It felt like this weird, optimistic book to me. Because I was able to create during a time when I was thinking only of death and destruction.
I really enjoyed the Underhills, Stephen and Lettie and their grandma. I enjoyed learning about their history of having their families decimated but yet they found this powerful way to persist.
That’s the thing, right? They’re doing what they can while they can. Even if they feel like it’s pointless, they’re still fighting. Whatever this thing is that’s controlling them, this family curse or whatever it is, most of them don’t even understand that, but they still do everything they can to protect themselves and the people who are important to them.
And in doing so and then doing so, they find like, this world beyond. I loved the way that you kind of played with the witch and the wizard sort of archetype and overlaid them on the reality we know. Like how people in the book say Lettie is a witch, but we see her in private moments, and she’s not. She’s got familiars but you don’t come right out and say that. She just likes snakes. And then there’s Stephen who basically making potions, but it’s LSD.
I always wanted to write a book about witches. I just didn’t want to call them witches. But I think that’s what witches historically have always been. It’s people who we don’t understand, and it’s people who society doesn’t understand, people they’re afraid of. “Witch” is just the label. The person is something else entirely.
I’m not trying to make light of this. It’s more this idea that whenever a woman is doing something we don’t understand, we call her a witch. We call them crazy. And I think it’s horrible. Women have definitely been treated unfairly throughout history with that specific concept of mind.
One of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading the book was the James Webb Telescope. Have you seen any of the images from that?
They’re incredible, aren’t they? They look fake. Like the 1970s blacklight poster where it’s like a little planet surrounded by a neon ring. I cannot get over how cool that stuff is. It’s like little bits of colored sand and marbles. The idea that we have access to that stuff is insane.
Yeah. The thing that trips me out most when you see the stuff that is beyond what we would we would recognize as a star. When it all starts to get, like, warped. When we start to see space-time getting bent because of gravity.
See, that’s where we come face to face with our limits. It’s like our relationship with time. A human being can conceive of when stars form, and we know when Rome fell and we’re able to essentially keep that in check with how long our lifetimes are, like how long we’ve been around in our societies, our cities, things like that. But there’s a level beyond that, where there’s existence before our universe. And a certain scale to thinking that we have absolutely no ability to conceive of. Where everything breaks down. It’s just cosmic dust expanding beyond comprehension. I think that kind of stuff is awesome. The idea of things being so much bigger than us that we have to turn a blind eye [otherwise it would] drive you insane.
And it’s also like, exhausting [laughter]. I’m fascinated by that stuff too, but I’m also like, “Yeah, but I have to go buy bread.”
Look, man, you can’t give up on doing what you’re doing day to day, even if it’s mundane. The only things in life that really give me a lot of joy are the real small, simple things. Like, I love drinking coffee. That’s my favorite part of the day. Like waking up in the morning and drinking coffee. I’m on a different planet for 15 minutes.
When we met, it felt like we were sort of in the beginning of this new era of, like, online literary writing.
Yeah. Very exciting time.
I wonder if that was coincidental or if that was just my perception at the time. But now it seems like things have changed so much with the literary world and like online publishing. How do you think things have changed in the past 10 or 15 years?
The thing I always come back to was HTMLGiant, which I think people kind of tongue-in-cheek say “the HTMLGiant revolution.” But it honestly felt that way at the time. It was a new space, generated and curated by new voices, young authors, some of whom have gotten really big chances since then. And it felt unfiltered and raw. And the comments were, like, insane all the time. But that’s just one example of what was going on. That was part of the constellation of sites that were all kind of doing that same thing at the same time.
Where I think that’s gone is that Internet spaces have been eclipsed by the concept of the town square. So instead of a bunch of HTMLGiants everywhere, there’s just one Twitter and everybody is kind of in this one space now competing for the same amount of attention. Which means they’re getting louder and louder and louder and louder to the point where it’s inane. It’s a race to the bottom, for sure.
I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve been interested in and I’ve gone to their Twitter accounts and I’m almost always disappointed. The constant need to share, to be heard, to be seen. It just feels embarrassing. Part of that’s me, like I’m projecting on to people. I don’t have Twitter. But I do think there’s this commodification of the Internet space where now it has to be shared by everybody. And I think that’s wrong. I think we should return to these smaller, niche scenes where things could really get wild and flourish. Blogs have been lost. I’d love to see that stuff come back. People had a real space [where] they weren’t pandering to everybody else. That was inspiring.
Twitter is the marketplace now. And any sort of online publication now is ancillary.
Yes. It was a mistake for the Internet to somehow only be six sites. I know there’s stuff I’m not aware of, and younger people have a different approach to online writing than I probably understand. I’m probably doing myself a disservice. But I’ve got to live with myself however I can, and I can’t live with myself if I’m on Twitter like fucking shilling books, you know? I’d rather do anything else with my time.
I think there are some experimental spaces still, but they do suffer from this consolidation.
Although those sites we talked about have gone away, now there are these presses, often run by like one or two people, who put out wild books and they do it the right way and those books are able to find an audience. I got super lucky working with Ben at Apocalypse Party for The World Below.
[Ben]’s doing it the right way. I was thrilled I got an opportunity to work with him because it’s kind of the best. He’s cultivating something real, you know, and I got lucky that I can still be part of it. I never take that kind of thing for granted. His focus has always been on the books themselves, the writing and the writers. That’s what it’s all about. I’ll keep doing it as long as that’s the way it is.