There's nothing more frightening than the dark and the unknown - and the best place to find that is in the backwoods or out in space. In the upcoming creator-owned series Black Stars Above, writer Lonnie Nadler and artist Jenna Cha are bringing that together in what Vault Comics calls "rural eldritch horror."
Melding the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft with hard-living period drama, Nadler and Cha transport readers to the Canadian frontier as a woman confronts a sanity-shattering entity from beyond the stars.
With the series debuting November 13, Newsarama spoke with Nadler about Black Stars Above, his devotion to cosmic horror, and his theory on why horror has such an affecting place in the comic market.
Newsarama: So, you've tackled all manner of horror sub-genre up until this point. You've got more pathos infused horror with Her Infernal Descent, social-tinged horror in The Dregs, and body horror in Come Into Me. What was it about cosmic horror that interested when you started developing Black Stars Above?
Lonnie Nadler: While I love horror in all its varieties and subgenres, the one I feel more affection for is cosmic horror.
I may regret saying that, as already I hear the Gothic horror part of my brain is screaming "Traitor! Heretic!" at me. However, there is something unique about the cosmic variety of genre fiction – and its roots in Weird fiction in a broader sense – in that it touches upon a specific aspect of terror that other subgenres do not.
While the kinds of horror I've worked on in the past are all seeded in the real world and the horror that stem from our culture or psyche, cosmic horror by definition derives from something outside ourselves. That is to say, the unknowable.
I believe this forces us to confront the very foundations of what it means to be human as well as the notion that we are largely insignificant in the universe.
So, while I feel like cosmic horror has the reputation for being all about aliens and outer space oddities, I actually find it to be the most human of all the subgenres in an existentialist perspective because it takes a step outside of ourselves to, hopefully, look back in with a new perspective. In the case of Black Stars Above, I was interested in playing with this idea in order to explore how a cosmic threat could be perceived by a different culture in a different time and place, but also to use this otherworldly being as a metaphor for something as simple as fear of lineage, isolation, and independence.
I wanted to pay homage to Lovecraft, but also to move beyond him. I'm a bit sick of cosmic horror that stays in Lovecraft's swimming lane, and while there is a lot of him in Black Stars Above, I also hope that I'm bringing some new ideas to the table as well. Or maybe recontextualizing at the very least.
Nrama: You beat me to mentioning Lovecraft, which is a feat. But it's interesting, reading the debut I got a much more August Derleth/Arthur Machen vibe from it. Speaking of, this is also your first wholly period piece, with the series being set in the 1800s. Was that an aesthetic choice or something that was intrinsic to the narrative from the jump?
Nadler: It's hard talking about this book sometimes because Lovecraft is such a touchstone that I just jump to him immediately because I know everyone knows him as the cosmic horror guy.
But since you brought it up and you're willing to go down this road of Weird fiction, I will say you're right. Machen, Derleth, and Blackwood were a much bigger influence on Black Stars Above, at least stylistically and narratively and structurally, than Lovecraft. They brought a sense of humanity to their work that Lovecraft often lacked.
I was very much moved by Lovecraft when I first discovered him, and I still am an avid fan, but when I found the works of the former authors who influenced him, it had a larger impact on me. There are tons of nods to all these writers throughout Black Stars Above that I doubt most readers will get (and that's okay). Things like how Machen mentions "The White Ceremony" in The White People and that is brought up in Black Stars Above. Or Blackwood's description other dimensions from The Willows is inserted somewhere in the book too. I don't want to ramble on about this, but there's lots of little easter eggs like that throughout for people like you and I who are Weird lit nerds.
As for the time period, it was definitely a choice intrinsic to the narrative rather than just because I thought it was cool, even though I do have a natural draw toward turn of the century fiction. The book has already received some comparison to The Witch, which I welcome because I love the movie, but I also feel like people will get the idea that I am doing period horror just out of mimicry, and that's not the case.
The story, upon inception, was already taking place in historical Canada. It's just how it came to me.
But the specific year of 1887 has a lot of relevance. It was the dead end of the fur trade in Canada, industry was taking over, there was political turmoil between settlers and the indigenous people, and cities and settlements were expanding rapidly.
All this is to say it was a time of great change, a major shift was occurring. It was a time of liminality for the nation and its people and this informs the world view of our protagonist, Eulalie Dubois, who herself is going through great changes and is caught between two worlds, in more ways than one. And of course, without giving much away, this all relates to the cosmic entity in the book somehow. My brain doesn't let me write things unless I have reasons for them. It's a blessing and a curse.
Nrama: And honestly I think that's something readers will really respond to; the intentional nature of all of it and how deliberate all your choices are in this opening.
But let's talk inception! How long has this particular story been in your head? Did you start with the setting and year and work out from there or was it as characters-first kind of deal?
Nadler: It started probably four years ago at this point. I was doing research for an article about Canadian horror cinema that never came to fruition, but as part of that I read Margaret Atwood's book, Survival, which is a non-fiction examination of the history of Canadian literature and the theme(s) that tie it together.
There's this prevalent idea that Canada has no national artistic identity, and while I largely agree, Atwood changed my mind about that. It was inspiring and made me want to contribute to our country's artistic legacy. Not in a nationalistic way, but just in terms of embracing where I am from as opposed to writing stories that are set in America just because that's what "works".
Anyway, there was a short story Atwood mentions in the book, which I was never able to track down, but it put this image in my head of a young fur trapper trekking through the harsh wilderness with a package for delivery. I didn't know much else about it, but there was this tone of horror that came along with the image and it stayed with me for some time. I thought there was something special about mixing that historical context with cosmic horror and weird fiction, even if I didn't fully know what it was just yet.
So, to answer your question, it all sort of came at once, but also none of it came clear until later at the same time. Since this image that gripped onto me like a brain slug was of a fur trapper, I knew it was set during that era in Canadian history, but that's like a 200-year period, which doesn't help. I dug into the high school history class crevasses of my brain, knowledge I thought was long lost to the abyss, but this flood of information came back to me about that setting. It was a very strange sensation.
But having this knowledge and looking into the end of that era, everything made sense to me. I narrowed the exact date down as the story and character continued to develop alongside my research, and as it goes with these things, it just falls into place. Black Stars Above wouldn't work with another character, or setting, or time for me. That's what the story is in terms of going toward the themes I'm trying to explore and the questions I'm seeking to ask both myself and the readership.
Nrama: And what do you think those questions are specifically? To me, you are a writer that asks a lot of an audience, but never in a pedantic or preachy way, and I think Black Stars Above is a great example of that, but I'm curious as to what you want readers to walk away from this with.
Nadler: I have to be careful here because while I have talked a lot about themes in my work in the past, I'm trying to do less of that because I don't want to color readers' interpretation of the text too much, especially with a book like Black Stars Above that is designed to be dreamy and weird and open to interpretation.
I guess it comes down to the idea that if you already know what something is about, what's the point in experiencing it? Maybe that's a bit reductive, but for me, the best reading or cinematic encounters I've had are always, without exception, those which I know the least about when going into it. Like, for example, I just saw The Lighthouse without having watched so much as a trailer. I blocked the word on social media so I wouldn't see anything related to it because I knew I wanted to see it and didn't need to be sold. Robert Eggers has earned that much from me. And it was the best movie going excursion I've had all year.
Similarly, when I first read Black Hole, I had no idea what it was about and because of that it left an impact on me that's hard to define. So, it's sort of this double-edged sword where I'm doing this interview to help promote the book, but at the same time I'm being a bit of a d*ck and saying I don't want to talk about it. I'm becoming that guy.
I guess what I'll say to somewhat answer your question is that I'm interested in what it means to be human, how our relationships inform our lives, and the innate desire for individuality despite our tribal genetic programming. In terms of questions, what I'm seeking to explore falls into epistemology and metaphysics, and more specifically, ontology. But to give a less pretentious answer, I'll say that I'm asking questions about individuality, family, and the permanency of transition. Specifically, whether or not these things should or should not be frightening to us. God, I must really sound like such an a**hole.
Nrama: No! Not at all! We think you sound like someone who has put a lot of time and thought into how horror cuts to the quick with readers.
But before we let you go, we have to ask, if you had to choose one "blasphemous god" from the Cosmic Horror canon, from Azathoth all the way to the Goat-With-A-Thousand-Young, which would be your favorite?
Nadler: This is a difficult and I don't know how to answer it without giving a multi-tiered response to a question that asks for a singular entity, so I will do just that.
My favorite cosmic entities are shifting constantly, but as of late, I will have to say I've been thinking a lot about the great worms from Ligotti's The Last Feast of Harlequin, The Shimmer in Annihilation, the willow trees in Blackwood's The Willows, Kos and Cleric Beast from Bloodborne (and yes I know Cleric Beast isn't a Great One), and of course the Elder Things in At The Mountains of Madness. Confronting the dreadful thing that is our limited conception of space/time in their presence and subsequently being torn utterly asunder at their hands (limbs, tentacles, branches) would be and incontestable honor.