Last year, writer Premee Mohamed mashed together science fiction, fantasy, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror in her novel Beneath The Rising (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). But this was only half the story. In the following email interview, Mohamed discusses the other half, A Broken Darkness (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), including how the Coronavirus pandemic changed her original plans for this second story.
For people who didn’t read the first book, Beneath The Rising, what was it about and when and where was it set?
I think the short answer is that Beneath The Rising was about secrets, but the long answer is that it was about a child prodigy, Johnny Chambers, and her best friend, Nick Prasad, and how they, via science, accidentally caught the attention of some Very Unpleasant Creatures, and then declared themselves responsible for getting rid of said creatures. It begins and ends in the summer of 2002 in an Edmonton that’s almost, but not quite, exactly like the one I live in.
And then what is A Broken Darkness about, how does it connect to Beneath The Rising, both narratively and chronologically?
A Broken Darkness is about aftermaths and consequences….
The world is still reeling from the events of the first novel. It’s a global, collective case of PTSD, and from an individual to a country level no one knows what their triggers are or how to heal. There haven’t been any incidents since summer 2002, though, so people are beginning to cautiously let their guard down; and anyway Johnny has arranged it, at the end of the first book, for this to never happen again. But even with all the doors shut and locked, worse things begin to happen, and of course the blame falls on her at once. Nick, who’s working for a kind of magical watchdog organization, doesn’t want to get involved…but the choice is really out of his hands in this book.
Narratively I wanted to look at friendship and connections again, but in the sense that people (and nations!) really do not know what to do to “make things right” after a conflict or a breakup. Nobody feels like they’re doing the right thing in terms of reparations, apologies, sincere changes to behavior. If people don’t want to connect again because they feel they can’t trust the other person, what do you do next? How do you heal, how do you just function? What if you have, say, a group project with someone who lied to you, hurt you, and let you down? So that, at every scale.
Where did you get the idea for A Broken Darkness, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this second novel?
It originally was going to be played a little more as a kind of “spy” novel actually, with factions becoming evident that weren’t in the first book. I’ve never written a spy novel before, and I thought it would be kind of fun. I liked the idea of extrapolating that idea of “After everything that happened, nobody trusts anybody” and making it fractal: no individual person trusts anybody else, but no family, no community, no governments, no institutions.
But what ended up happening, as I wrote during the pandemic, was that I scrapped most of that original idea and it turned into something of a “plague novel.” I think the “spy vs. spy” concept still stands, but what it became was: Mistrust is also a communicable disease, and can also be fatal. Isolation is what we think will save us, but it’s not always possible. Things get in. And when we’re divided, it’s harder to strategize and organize.
Beneath The Rising was a mash-up of science fiction, fantasy, and cosmic horror. Is A Broken Darkness as much of a mélange, or are there even more genres at work in this story?
I think it might be about the same. As discussed, I thought it would be interesting to have kind of a spy or conspiracy aspect, which increased as I was finishing the draft during the early stages of the pandemic when conspiracy theories were rife. They were all ridiculous, and some of them struck me as dangerous, but I began thinking: Why do people seize onto these? What do they find appealing? Is there so much as a hair-thin core of truth in any of them, and if so, how did people build up the lies around it? How did they pick, what were their criteria? What were their sources? That kind of thing. Nick spends a lot of Darkness thinking of himself as James Bond, then also thinking that James Bond is a trainwreck, and then realizing that he’s a trainwreck, too (without proper spy education or training). It was also really fun to lean into the “how do you study magic from a scientific framework” aspect that Johnny pointed out in the first novel, so that the fantasy intensifies the sci-fi, and vice versa.
A Broken Darkness is your third published novel after Beneath The Rising and The Apple-Tree Throne, though you’ve written a bunch that have not been published…yet. Are there any writers or stories that had a big influence on A Broken Darkness but not on anything else you’ve written?
Actually, now that I look at it, I think the book is not just a pandemic novel but also a war novel in some aspects. And when I began to work on the revised outline for Darkness, I noticed that I was reading a lot about the world wars, resistance and pacifist movements, and the role of expansionist empires in conflict throughout history. I’m not going to point to anything specific but I think here is a good place, also, to say that during the latter part of 2019 and early part of 2020, when the novel was being written, I actually wasn’t consuming a lot of media of any type…I found that I couldn’t focus properly, and that loss of concentration (for some weird reason) wasn’t cured by a global pandemic. Very strange.
Now, in the previous interview we did for Beneath The Rising [which you can read by clicking here], you said that novel had originally been conceived us as a stand-alone story which had been reconfigured to be the first half of a duology. Is that still the case? Do Beneath The Rising and A Broken Darkness still form a duology?
It’s still a two-book deal, so A Broken Darkness is where it ends. It was interesting for me to write though, as I wanted to write a book that began logically from the end of the first book (which I had never done before) and ended in a way that finished it for good (which I have). I’ve never written a sequel before, and I found it incredibly difficult to decide what to repeat or re-explain from the first book, and what to leave out assuming that a reader would know it already…I was hugely envious of authors who a) are good at writing series, and b) knew that they were writing a series when they wrote the first book, and could plan it as such. I re-read the beginnings of a couple of sequel novels trying to figure out how better writers managed backstory gracefully and efficiently, without talking down to readers or leaving them in the dark.
I’d like to write some tie-in short stories one day, but for now that’s very up in the air, what with (as you mention!) all the books I have coming out this year.
As you probably know, there are people — myself included — who have been waiting for A Broken Darkness to come out so they can read it and Beneath The Rising back-to-back. Do you think this is the best way to experience this story?
I am going to leave it up to my readers. I will say, I feel that since it’s not even two years since the end of the first book, and the sequel is set in a world so different that it seems like a different planet, you’d be okay not re-reading the first one immediately before going into the second, so long as you remember the basic gist of the ending. Nick has changed a lot since the end of the first book and, although she doesn’t think it, so has Johnny.
Now, along with A Broken Darkness, you also recently released a novella called These Lifeless Things. What is that about, plot-wise?
It’s kind of a side-quel (I assume that’s a word?) of a short story called “And Sneer Of Cold Command,” which was published in The Sockdolager in 2017. Basically, I wanted to explore what might be happening at the same time but in a different place. There are two stories within Lifeless, narrated by two women who never meet. The first story is told by Eva, who is living through the aftermath of some kind of invasion, which she thinks is probably alien. Powerful, incomprehensible, and apparently immortal beings have taken over the world, killed almost everyone, and put some cities under a kind of blockade, so no one can get in or out. Her story is about survival, and the investigation of what the monsters are doing. The second story is told years later by Emerson, a young researcher specializing in what society now calls “The Setback,” and she goes to the city that Eva lived in and finds her story. Her story in turn is about investigating Eva’s story, trying to find clues to see how true it all was, and also getting to the bottom of how another researcher in her team may be trying to sabotage her work.
And is These Lifeless Things connected to Beneath The Rising and A Broken Darkness?
It’s not connected to either book; I just used “Them” as shorthand for the invaders. I find I do that fairly frequently because I enjoy keeping Their real identity ambiguous (plus, if the characters in the stories never figure it out either, it’s reasonable to give Them a generic name).
Given how A Broken Darkness and These Lifeless Things are coming out mere weeks apart, is it safe to assume they were written either back-to-back or at the same time?
Nothing is safe to assume in publishing timelines. Lifeless was completed years ago, not long after I finished “And Sneer Of Cold Command,” and was submitted to a venue that held it for about a year before acquiring it, then another year before breaking the contract, and then it went back out again to try its chances.
But I think the Beneath The Rising, A Broken Darkness, and These Lifeless Things were influenced by the same set of things that I consume a lot of: old and new cosmic horror (Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen), pulp adventure writers like Robert E. Howard and H. Rider Haggard, folk horror wherever I can find it, a lot of Umberto Eco. I like the idea of ordinary people coming up against enemies they have never even heard of, let alone heard of how to defeat; I think there’s a lot still to be explored both from kind of a horror and a sociological standpoint about how people react when presented with situations that can’t be resolved no matter how much effort, teamwork, and ingenuity is deployed.
So is “And Sneer Of Cold Command” included in any version of These Lifeless Things?
No, “Sneer” is not included in any version of These Lifeless Things. It’s not necessary to understand what’s happening in the novella, and I never considered asking for them to be published together. I’d love to put together a collection of my stories one of these days but have not discussed it with my agent yet. I don’t think I’ve been in the short fiction game long enough to have the potential for a really strong collection.
I also wanted to ask you about The Apple-Tree Throne. You self-published that novel in 2018, before Beneath The Rising came out and got all kinds of praise and attention. Has there been any talk about rereleasing that novel?
No, there hasn’t been publisher interest in it, and I know I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to release a physical version with illustrations, but the problem is that actual fiction that I’m on contract for keeps getting in the way. It was released as an audiobook by Skyboat Books in 2020, so that was really exciting, and I think they did an incredible job. If a publisher did show interest in it (hello! call me! call my agent!) I wouldn’t make any major changes to the text, I don’t think, except the one typo in it that I’ve been too lazy to fix so far.
In the previous interview we did about Beneath The Rising, you said there hadn’t been any interest in adapting that novel into a movie, TV show, or game, though as you added, “…even if there had been, I wouldn’t be allowed to say, because publishing.” Has that changed, and if so, can you tell us anything?
There has not, but even if there had been, I wouldn’t be allowed to say! (Still!) It is very tragic though and I would like it to be a cartoon, honestly, more than anything.
Finally, if someone enjoys Beneath The Rising and A Broken Darkness, what Lovecraftian sci-fi / fantasy mash-up novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
So, I recently read The Fisherman by John Langan, and I wholeheartedly, happily recommend that. The “story within a story within a story” structure really worked for me, it keeps you both extremely scared but extremely on top of things, and the scale of the cosmic horror in it is wonderful.
I’d also like to recommend The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher because, again, I felt that sense of a small, human story set within the frame of a much larger, scarier world with villains of immense power and evil.