For the latest novella in their ongoing Systema Paradoxa series about cryptids, eSpec Books have enlisted author Sean Patrick Hazlett to write Hell’s Well (paperback, Kindle). Which, as you’ll quickly realize from reading the following email interview he and I did about this science fiction / borderline cosmic horror story, may have been a mistake…for him.
To start, what is Hell’s Well about, when and where does it take place, and what cryptid is it about?
Hell’s Well takes place today in Southern California, from Caltech’s ivory tower, to Hollywood soirees in Malibu, to the deepest and loneliest valley in the United States in Lone Pine, California. The story is about a professor whose estranged and very famous celebrity father, Mack Gavin, The Cryptid Hunter, disappears under the shadow of Mount Whitney in Lone Pine, California while investigating reports of a cryptid known as the Lone Pine Mountain Devil.
How familiar were you with this cryptid before you started writing Hell’s Well, and how did learning about it influence the plot of this novella?
I was looking for less well-known cryptids located in California. While everyone is familiar with Bigfoot, far fewer people are aware of the Lone Pine Mountain Devil. There wasn’t much lore regarding the creature, which may have been a meme invented on the Internet about a decade after the turn of this century…or not. Sightings of the creature seemed to heighten in the 1800s as thousands of settlers headed west, died down in 1928, then began again in earnest around 2003. The most famous case is the slaughter of an expedition in 1878, where the only survivor, a Jesuit priest named Justus Martinez, claimed to have witnessed demons from the sky swooping down and attacking members of his convoy at night until everyone but him was torn apart. The periodic nature of these attacks as well as the seismic activity of the Owens Valley had a strong influence on the novella.
And did researching the Lone Pine Mountain Devil lead you down a weird rabbit hole from which there is no escape and no one is innocent and everything has six meanings and do you really believe that the government isn’t putting tracking devices in tacos that look like melted cheese?
Oh my God, did it lead me down rabbit holes within rabbit holes within wormholes and back again, tearing a rift in spacetime… The news stories about strange disappearances in the region were crazy enough. One family disappeared into the desert in 1986 for six days after having an “unusual experience,” which was never explained. I reviewed the ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute Native American tribe and their mythologies and traditions to try to correlate them with Lone Pine Mountain Devil lore. I even traveled to Lone Pine, California in October 2020 in the midst of the pandemic to study the fabled beast in person. And it was glorious. There were very few people there, and I had Lone Pine, California ALL. TO. MYSELF. I visited all the crazy and odd geographic landmarks like the Mobius Arch, a natural terrain featured shaped like a Möbius strip. I wandered through the desert valleys at dawn, day, and dusk seeking a glimpse of the elusive Lone Pine Mountain Devil. Alas, I was not in the right cycle, so it didn’t rip my face off. Fortunately.
And should we think anything of the fact that your last name is Hazlett…and that Hazlet is a town in New Jersey…and New Jersey is the state where eSpec Books is located…and eSpec Books is publishing the novella Hell’s Wells…which you wrote!?!
Hazlet is indeed a name of a township in New Jersey that honors the late, great Dr. John Hazlett. Is that a mistake? Surely, Sean, you must mean Dr. John Hazlet, with one T like the town? Nope, the township Hazlet with one T is named for the Hazlett with two Ts. What happened to that extra T, or… E-T? Wouldn’t you like to know. And speaking of New Jersey, the Lone Pine Mountain Devil is often considered to be the New Jersey Devil’s cousin species, among other things. And I live in California, and the Lone Pine Mountain Devil lives in California. And another Hazlett lived in New Jersey, and the New Jersey Devil lives in New Jersey. Coincidence?
On a more serious note, when writing a story like Hell’s Well, how accurate do you have to be when it comes to the particulars of the cryptid you’re writing? Obviously, if you’re writing about Bigfoot, you can’t say he flies or speaks with a British accent, but with the Lone Pine Mountain Devil being relatively unknown, you could have some latitude.
Given the sparsity of material on the Lone Pine Mountain Devil, I definitely had a high degree of latitude in describing it. In fact, while material on it is lacking, the theories on what the creature could be are certainly not. Let’s just say that I got to play with a great many of these theories.
So, did you add anything to the mythos of your cryptid?
Absolutely. In cryptid tales, local geography can play as much a part in the mythology as the cryptid itself. In researching Lone Pine, I was able to add more layers to the story that took into account the region’s seismic activity and link it to certain gravitational anomalies. For instance, why aren’t there more reports of the Lone Pine Mountain Devil today? Why does the creature’s activity appear to be more periodic rather than constant? Using this seismic activity, I was able to add a scientific rationale for why the creature seems to be observed in cycles. Additionally, there is some variation about its appearance as well as its origin. Is it a surviving species of dinosaur? An alien? A demon? Or something…else?
It sounds like Hell’s Well is a cross between a horror story and fantasy story…
Oh, it’s actually far closer to a science fiction horror story — and borders on cosmic horror. The protagonist is an aspiring Caltech astrophysicist who is working tirelessly to get tenure while raising a precocious young daughter as a single mother. She must rescue her far more famous father who was beloved and well-known to audiences as The Cryptid Hunter. When he goes missing, it turns out that her scientific training might provide her with an unanticipated advantage in solving the mystery.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, Hell’s Well is your second novella after The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide, though you’ve also written the short story collection Alien Abattoir. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Hell’s Well but not on anything else you’ve written?
Raymond Chandler. After all, at heart, the story is a bit of a detective tale set in Southern California.
How about non-literary influences; was Hell’s Well influenced by any movies, TV shows, games, or anything else? Aside from AC/DC, of course.
Hell’s Well was definitely influenced by Dr. Kip Thorne’s research on gravitational waves and wormholes, and one of the characters in the story is loosely based on him. The novella also has a sliver of a Stranger Things vibe.
I mentioned your other books a moment ago. But you’ve also edited two related anthologies: Weird World War III and Weird World War IV [which you can read more about here and here]. How do you think working with other people on those collections influenced what you wrote in Hell’s Well, and how you wrote it?
The stories in both anthologies involve real world military scenarios juxtaposed against weird science-fictional or fantastical phenomena. In many senses, Hell’s Well could fit right into these anthologies. It certainly has weird science fictional elements, and there may or may not be a secret paramilitary organization involved in the story — you’ll have to read it to find out. Seeing forty great examples of how to meld the weird with the real world in a seamless manner in different ways definitely improved Hell’s Well’s verisimilitude.
Hell’s Well is the latest in eSpec Book’s Systema Paradoxa series. How familiar were you with this series before writing Hell’s?
I was actually invited to write a novella in the series at the very beginning, so I was very familiar with it and watched the first novella’s launch with interest. From a commercial perspective, I also appreciated how the series was co-marketed with Cryptid Crate, where not only could readers get a fantastic novella, but also they could get a little figurine, stickers, and other memorabilia honoring a new cryptid several times a year.
Hell’s Well is not the first book in this series, but it’s also not the last. In preparing to write Hell’s Well, did you talk to any future contributors to make sure you were screwing anything up for them?
I did not speak with any former or future contributors because my cryptid did not interact in any way with theirs. I wanted this story to absolutely stand on its own, and I feared that by exchanging notes with the other authors, my story could have been adversely influenced consciously or subconsciously. What you are going to see when you read the novella is the purest Sean Patrick Hazlett story you’re going to get.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Hell’s Well?
Beware of fungi…
Finally, if someone enjoys Hell’s Well, which of the previous Systema Paradoxa novellas would you suggest they read next?
Without giving away the cryptid, I would recommend you read The Play Of Light by Danielle Ackley-McPhail because it involves an ingenious take on a certain cryptid, which I cannot name. Definitely check it out! Because if I do name it, it might show up in my bedroom tonight. [For more on The Play Of Light, check out this interview with Danielle Ackley-McPhail.]