We caught up with queer horror author Thomas Olde Heuvelt to talk about his latest work Echo, queer characters in publishing, future plans and his experiences of mountaineering and spookiness.
In the opening chapter of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, an American family is sitting down to breakfast in their comfortable suburban home; things take a sinister turn with the appearance of an emaciated hag, materialising in their living room, her eyes and lips stitched. Surprisingly, the family doesn’t panic or question her presence but continues with their breakfast and discusses the day ahead.
This was the first of several mysteries unpacked in Olde Heuvelt’s witch-themed debut. The successful Hex welcomed the readers to Black Spring, a leafy and affluent town in upstate New York; think a less-absurdist Scarfolk that shares a playfully perverse nightmare-logic with Twin Peaks and is full of pop-cultural call-backs to the likes of Roald Dahl, Stephen King, and Mario Bavo.
In Echo Sam Avery’s boyfriend, Nick returns from a mountain-climbing accident that leaves his face partially disfigured. Nick is convinced he has brought something primal and malevolent back from the doomed Maudit. Sam is initially sceptical until one of Nick’s counsellors disappears; there are rumours of suicides at a previous facility and he sees things crawling from the wounds on Nick’s body. They both return to the mountain…
From the outset, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to accomplish with Echo?
After the success of Hex, I wanted to write a book that was bigger, grander, and scarier in every way possible. With each new novel I want to accomplish something new, and that’s what I tried to do in writing Echo. Echo is my love letter to the classic gothic novel, both in narrative style and contents. It is about a guy who becomes possessed by a force of nature, possessed by a mountain. The overwhelming power of nature was always part of the classic gothic story. But more than a creepy horror novel, Echo is also modern, twisted, and fun. And above all, I think it is a really sweet love story between two young guys.
Was Echo more research-intensive than Hex?
Not really. I am a mountaineer myself, and I know what it is like to feel the life in the rock and the ice around you. I have a ton of experience in climbing in the topography of the Swiss Alps, which helped me a great deal when I was writing this story. But more so, I have a boyfriend who doesn’t really like it when I go climbing because he feels I put my life on the line, and sometimes rightly so. I soon discovered the real story in Echo was with him, not the climber.
Did you find the storytelling harder this time?
I started writing Echo at the time Hex blew up internationally. I was touring on four continents at the time, and it is awesome when your dreams come true and childhood heroes like Stephen King laud your work, but it also froze me. Because, how was I ever going to top it? It was actually George R. R. Martin, who wrote the books HBO’s Game of Thrones is based on, who helped me overcome that block. He had very simple advice for me: have fun at it. Enjoy it. That was the key part. And when I realised that, I had a blast writing Echo. The storytelling was definitely a challenge. Nick and Sam, the main characters, both have very distinct voices; Nick has a more journalistic style, and Sam has this trendy, sharp, Gen-Z kind of voice—but when I found it, it was a lot of fun to speak through their minds. I truly love those guys.
Echo has shades of King’s The Shining in your own approach to the supernatural. What are some of your influences?
I like to take archetypes of the horror genre and twist them around in fresh and modern ways. Echo is a possession novel, partly inspired by the quintessential possession story The Exorcist, but what I don’t like about possession stories is that there’s always a religious connotation. There’s always a demon or a devil, there’s the church, the priest who comes to exorcise the evil power… But possession is about so much more. In The Shining, Jack Torrance is possessed by the spirits of The Overlook Hotel. In Echo, there are no spirits or demons. It’s the force of nature itself that possesses Nick. And that gave for very interesting storytelling, because, what does a mountain actually want?
Echo follows in the footsteps of Paul Tremblay’s A Cabin at the End of the World with the inclusion of queer characters. Why do you think there is not more genre-fiction with LGBTQ+ Characters?
I love Tremblay’s work, he is a fantastic writer. You are right, there isn’t a lot of mass-market fiction with queer characters, without the story actually dealing with queer issues. Echo is first and foremost a horror novel. It is also a love story, and because the subject matter hits so close to home, I decided that there had to be two guys, as that’s my own story. But never in the book, does the story deal with queer issues. I don’t feel the need to advocate for anything. I just love good stories. And indeed, it’s about time more good stories have queer characters.
Do you see this changing in publishing?
I do. When I first addressed the issue with my UK publisher in 2016, he said: we would love to publish this, but you must take into account that the British are, in his words, “bloody conservative”. So if you have these gay characters in Echo, prepare for everyone to be talking about that. A year later, his take had shifted. He said: there is actual demand for stories with queer characters, without the story dealing with queer issues. Now, we are a couple of years further down the line, and society’s perspective on these matters changes rapidly. I think you’ll see queer representation in fiction more and more.
The story alternates between Sam and Nick, a couple in love. Sam is reluctant to spend time with Nick because he has suffered severe facial mutilations. This was honest, but an accurate response from someone who is a tad vain, narcissistic, and entitled. Do you agree?
Cut the guy some slack, haha! No, I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t necessarily agree that Sam was narcissistic or entitled. The book makes the point that when we’re in love, we all play the same game; would you stay with me forever, would you stay with me if my face burns or if I end up in a wheelchair, or if a shark bites off my legs? When we’re in love, we all say yes, of course, it’s not your looks I’m going for. But when these things actually happen, it’s more complicated. I wanted Sam to be honest. And when you’re 24, a mutilated boyfriend isn’t how you pictured your life, let alone your sex life. So Sam’s struggles are real, and in the end, I think he’s far from shallow, as he makes the choice to fight for his love even beyond death. Love is addictive, and Sam becomes hooked to what’s hiding behind Nick’s mask.
The Maudit is a real mountain. Have you climbed it?
The Mont Maudit is a real mountain in France, and its name means ‘cursed mountain’. It was too good a name not to use, of course! But it is not the mountain my Maudit was based on. That would be the Besso, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, with its double peaks shaped like the horns of a devil. I did climb the Besso—it’s a beautiful day out.
What is next for you?
My next novel is called Oracle, and the English language editions will come out in ’23. Oracle is again a creepy tale, and Robert Grim, one of the main characters in Hex, sees his return (even though it is by no means a sequel to Hex). Oracle sets mostly on the North Sea between Britain and Holland and deals with oil rigs, old ships, mammoths, and ancient evils lurking beneath the surface. Before that, I’ll be touring for Echo both in the UK and US, depending on the pandemic, of course. The novel I’m currently working on is called November. That is probably my darkest one yet. It’s a deal with the devil story… but again, twisted in a completely new way.
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