Though it’s connected to the board game Arkham Horror, and thus inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft that inspired the game, in the following email interview, writer S.A. Sidor says his new occult horror novel Arkham Horror: Cult Of The Spider Queen (paperback, Kindle) was also influenced by a certain fedora-loving college professor.
Let’s start with some quick background: What kind of game is Arkham Horror?
Arkham Horror is a cooperative board game. A team of investigators work together to defeat human and supernatural monsters who serve the alien entities known as the Ancient Ones. It’s set in Arkham, Massachusetts, in 1926, and mixes pulp action and Lovecraftian horror.
And then what is Cult Of The Spider Queen about, and how does it connect to both the game and the previous Arkham Horror novels, including your own, The Last Ritual?
Cult Of The Spider Queen begins in Arkham, but takes the action south of the equator. To the Brazilian Amazon. The book opens in 1927. One year earlier, a filmmaker vanished along with her crew while shooting a movie in the rainforest. They’d set out in their search of the legendary Spider Queen. Did they track down the origin of myth, or did they meet up with a living monster? A young Arkham reporter gets an anonymous tip about the fate of the missing director. A cryptic film reel that shows her standing inside the ruins of an ancient temple. The reporter gathers a team of explorers and launches a rescue mission, while chasing the biggest story of his career.
The tone of the novel is very Lovecraftian. The main investigators come from the game. One of the other members of the team, the reporter, is a supporting character I wrote for in The Last Ritual. Here he moves to the main stage. Pulp action is the name of the game. Giant spiders. Psychedelic, drug-induced, rainforest visions. Trippy monsters crossing over the border from dreamlands to reality.
Where did you get the idea for Cult Of The Spider Queen?
I’ve always wanted to go on a river cruise down the Amazon. It’s on my bucket list. I really, really hate mosquitos, so I’ll probably never go. But I love reading about real-life exploration. Tropical rainforests have a special attraction for me. They’re disappearing fast. No one knows everything we’re losing. But when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I’d recently read two books about Amazon exploration while I was writing my previous Arkham novel, The Last Ritual. One was The Lost City Of Z by David Grann. The other was Candice Millard’s River Of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. They’re both thrilling. That sparked the idea. Lovecraft along the Amazon River.
How much freedom did you have in deciding what story you’d tell in Cult Of The Spider Queen, and how you’d tell it? Obviously, you can’t contradict anything in the game…
My experience working with the folks at Arkham Horror has been nothing but positive. Writing is a lonely trade. Working in their universe is a different experience. It’s collaborative. I’m playing with their toys, in their sandbox. Obviously, I want to make sure I’m paying attention to what they see as the key elements of the Arkham Horror experience. And they know the history and continuity of their game much better than I ever could. I’d call it a hands-off approach. I check in to make sure I’m not screwing anything up with the Cthulhu Mythos or the spirit of the game. It’s been great to have ongoing feedback and input, and ultimately their approval, of my storytelling. Totally rewarding.
Did you also check in the other writers who’ve penned the previous Arkham Horror novels, such as Josh Reynolds [Wrath Of N’Kai] or Ari Marmell [Litany Of Dreams], or maybe one of the contributors to Dark Origins: The Collected Novellas, Volume 1?
I haven’t checked in personally with the other writers. I want to stay as much in my own imagination as I can. But I do get feedback from our mutual editor, Lottie Llewelyn-Wells. She knows if I’m covering territory that’s been visited before. She sends me stories or points out common elements, like say, if our characters visit the same location, so I can make sure I blend my story seamlessly with other content. If I’m writing about a character that’s been used in another book, I want to make certain my portrayal doesn’t contradict something already out in the world. It’s more fun than it sounds. But building something, adding to a larger vision with multiple creators is inspiring much more than it is limiting.
Along with The Last Ritual and Cult Of The Spider Queen, you’ve also written two books in your The Institute For Singular Antiquities series: Fury From The Tomb and The Beast Of Nightfall Lodge. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Cult Of The Spider Queen but not on any of your other books, especially The Last Ritual?
Two writers who have written in the Lovecraftian vein, and influenced me on this book, are Elizabeth Hand and Michael Shea. Shea’s The Color Out Of Time is probably my favorite book in this corner of the subgenre. Spare, vivid, and creepy as Hell.
H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath was also a springboard for Cult Of The Spider Queen. I reread it closely a couple of times along with the many historical notes in Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft Beyond Arkham. Many of the strange creatures in Spider Queen come directly from Lovecraft’s original work. I try to be consistent while I repurpose them for my own use.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Aside from Arkham Horror, of course.
I don’t know if it’s possible to write about an adventure-loving archaeologist without being influenced by Indiana Jones. I tried very hard not to just do a repeat of the Jones-type. The main explorer / archaeologist in Cult Of The Spider Queen is a woman, Ursula Downs, who comes directly from the game. She’s a very popular character, and it’s easy to see why. She was fun to write. Pushing against gender stereotypes and expectations opens up new spaces and dynamics in the narrative flow.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, Cult Of The Spider Queen is the second Arkham Horror novel you’ve written. They’ve already announced that the next one will be Rosemary Jones’ The Deadly Grimoire, which will be out March 1st, but are you working on one as well?
I’d love to write another Arkham Horror novel. The universe has so many facets. It’s such a rich and atmospheric place to visit. It invites pulp genre mashups from mystery, horror, science fiction, romance, hardboiled crime, noir — so many shades of juicy, oozy, tentacled spookiness. I can’t comment on anything right now. Whether or not I write another Arkham Horror book, I’ve certainly been influenced positively by the experience of writing The Last Ritual and Cult Of The Spider Queen.
So what are you doing?
While I wait and see what might happen with Arkham Horror, I’ve been tinkering with a novel about a 1980s heavy metal band that accidentally summons a demon from Hell who destroys the band members’ lives just as they’re breaking out and continues to haunt them to the present day as they reunite for a reality TV series about celebrity ghost hunting.
Now, while people into Arkham Horror will be interested in reading Cult Of The Spider Queen, there are also people into Lovecraftian stories who don’t play the game. Do you think someone can enjoy — and more importantly, understand — Spider Queen if they don’t play Arkham Horror?
People who don’t play the game will be able to read and enjoy the book without knowing the game. But I hope it makes them curious to explore Arkham Horror. The atmosphere, the adventure…the monsters and evil occultists who populate my story are at home in a Lovecraft-inspired world. If you like Lovecraft stories you will feel at home in this story too.
Making the books stand on their own is a running theme in the interviews I’ve done with the books based on Fantasy Flight Games’ games. Is that a mandate when you write one of these books?
No, I wouldn’t call it a mandate. No one has ever talked to me about making my story anything other than a rip-roaring supernatural pulp adventure. Arkham Horror is an immersive experience. I hope my books are immersive experiences. I think people who like to get lost in this particular, and peculiar, kind of world of weirdness and monsters will enjoy playing the game. I know I do.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in Cult Of The Spider Queen should know before deciding to buy it or not?
If you hate spiders, this book is going to go badly for you. They will crawl off the page.
Finally, if someone enjoys Cult Of The Spider Queen, they’ll probably read The Last Ritual if they haven’t already. Once they’ve done that, though, which of the other people’s Arkham Horror novels would you suggest they read next?
I can’t possibly pick a favorite. I enjoyed every book I read. Maybe start with The Devourer Below [a short story collection edited by Lottie Llewelyn-Wells which you can read more about here]. It’s a smorgasbord sampler of horrifying delights and, if you like what you taste, order more.