To fans of the Forgotten Realms part of Dungeons & Dragons, writer Rosemary Jones is known as the author of the novels Crypt Of The Moaning Diamond, City Of The Dead, and the Cold Steel And Secrets quartet. But now Jones is exploring a different realm, one based on a rather different game. In the following email interview, Jones discusses her new novel, Mask Of Silver (paperback, Kindle), which is connected to the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror card game, Arkham Horror.
Photo Credit: Rozarii Lynch
To start, what is Mask Of Silver about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Mask Of Silver is set in the American town of Arkham created for the game Arkham Horror, and the majority of the action happens in early summer 1923. In my novel, the latest visitors to be sucked into Arkham’s spooky history are a silent movie crew. The director comes from Arkham originally, and has the “wonderful idea” of making a horror movie in his ancestral home. Cue the crescendo as costumer Jeany Lin enters the house for the first time and has a feeling that this is a very bad idea indeed. Unfortunately she cannot just leave for sunny California as her sister and her dearest friends are all part of the movie crew. As the movie progresses, people begin disappearing. How Jeany escapes and who escapes with her form the basis of the story.
It’s obvious why you set Mask Of Silver in the 1920s, but is there a reason you chose 1923 as opposed to 1920 or 1925 or 1927?
There was a strong reason when I started, which didn’t work as I drafted the outline. But 1923 was an interesting year for silent movies. In particular, for horror fans, it’s the year that Lon Chaney made one of his biggest hits, Hunchback Of Notre Dame, which showed off his talent for creating grotesque make-up matched with sympathetic character portrayals. The genius of Chaney, like Charlie Chaplin, is that his characters have universal appeal. Of course, with Chaplin, the Little Tramp is universally likable while Chaney’s characters are terrifying — yet sympathetic, too. I’ve seen Chaney’s Hunchback several times, including one Halloween showing in a cathedral with the organ going full blast, and it’s an amazing piece of cinematic art.
It sounds like Mask Of Silver is a noir-ish horror tale. Is that how you’d describe it?
“Noir-ish” is a good description. It’s not horror as we think of horror today. There’s no slasher or serial killer. There’s no blood…well, almost no blood. It’s horror more as it was portrayed in the silent movies and the novels of the era. My favorite silent horror films are Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. I also love the odder mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart and the even stranger short stories of Robert W. Chambers. Early works like Rinehart’s Circular Staircase and Chambers’ King In Yellow help set the tone for this novel.
Mask Of Silver is the third book of four that are inspired by Arham Horror. How does Mask Of Silver connect to the games, narratively and chronologically?
Chronologically, Mask Of Silver occurs before the game, which is set in 1926. So while a couple of investigators from the game make cameo appearances, and another is foreshadowed, this is not necessarily the people that you would encounter in Arkham while playing either the card or board game.
The books are all independent stories set in the same world. I’m not aware of any crossover characters. We’re all very different writers as well. For the media tie-ins that I’ve written for Arkham Horror and Forgotten Realms, you’re encouraged to be true to your writing voice and to write stand-alone novels. So the reader can start wherever they want in the “series” of Arkham Horror books. Is my novel of 1920s Hollywood and New England the same as somebody else’s set in the same place and era? Maybe in some ways, but we all create our own world within the world.
My understanding is that you came up with the story for Mask Of Silver. Where did you get the idea, and how, if at all, did it change as you wrote it?
I’ve wanted to mix magic and the silent movies for years. Partially because the early true history is so crazy fun. The rise of Hollywood brought together an amazing diverse population to work together to create movies. And what they created went around the world because you didn’t need a common spoken language to understand it. That was always key to the plot. What grew as I wrote it was the question of identity, family, and what someone would be willing to sacrifice for success. Many of the stars of the silent movie era essentially recast themselves as their publicity and the public demanded. The silent movie actress Theda Bara developed a very glamorous fictional family background to match her audience’s expectations of her as the vamp. In Mask Of Silver, Jeany’s sister conceals their relationship in order to be a star.
So how familiar with Arham Horror were you before you signed on to write Mask Of Silver?
I’d played the game. I knew several Fantasy Flight Games properties, but when I was pitching to Aconyte, I concentrated on Arkham Horror because I wanted to write something set in the 1920s. For this type of media tie-in novel, you’re usually asked to submit three or four ideas. Out of those, you’re asked to develop a longer outline for one. Then comes the contract, a set date for delivering the manuscript, and the hideous knowledge that you’ve just committed yourself to crafting an 80,000 word novel in nine months based on two pages of plot outline. So I sold on an outline based on “silent movie crew decides to film in Arkham” and had to write a manuscript in a very short amount of time. Just to add to the fun, a worldwide pandemic shut down everything and made a hash of my day job. Although these days, I joke that while others baked bread, I typed like mad just to relieve stress.
How do you think being familiar with the game helped you?
When I write stories based on games, I want to respect the property and convey the joy of the game to both old fans and people who have never played it. Because playing a game should be entertaining and so should reading a book based on it. So I spend a lot of time re-reading the mechanics and the background, and thinking how that would translate into a story.
Also, I want the novel to be as good as any in the genre as I can make it. One of the greatest compliments that I’ve gotten from several readers now is, “I love Arkham Horror, I love your character Jeany, I want you to write another book, but please don’t send Jeany back there. She deserves a break.” It’s always nice when the readers care about what happens next to your character. When I was writing in the Forgotten Realms, I had several very tough guys tell me, “I love grim, gritty fantasy. But before I go any further, will you please tell me if the little dog dies?” So I made up a signed bookplate for my first novel that said “No small dogs were harmed in the making of this book.”
Are there any writers who had a big influence on Mask Of Silver but not on anything else you’ve written? Well, besides H.P. Lovecraft, obviously.
The two major influences on this novel were Robert W. Chambers and Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Interestingly, this is the first novel that I’ve written that was told in first person. But reading all those authors again demonstrated how first person can be the perfect way to scare the reader, or at least convey the scares being experienced from a very personal viewpoint. There’s an element of “is this real or is this supernatural” that runs through all three. Rinehart almost always concludes with what I call the “Scooby Doo” explanation: the supernatural is actually an illusion created by a villain to achieve some goal. Except for her novel The Red Lamp. It deliberately leaves the door open for a supernatural explanation for some events in the novel…and definitely leaves the reader a bit unsettled. Chambers’ short story “The Repairer Of Reputations” could be a narrator influenced by an outside supernatural agency, but it could also be self-delusion. And, which I’d forgotten, it’s also science fiction…because the story portrays a dystopian 1920s America while being written in 1895. Or does it? That’s what the reader has to decide. It’s a masterpiece of a slow burn story that sucks the reader deeper and deeper into the horror of the tale.
Other influences might be movies like The Others, which is one of the great haunted house movies for what it doesn’t show. And almost anything written by Neil Jordan for how he centers you in the small details that make his characters real, even when they are very unreal indeed.
Finally, if someone enjoys Mask Of Silver, what similar kind of horror novel by someone else would you suggest they read next and why that?
They should try Mary Roberts Rinehart. Her novel The Red Lamp is still very readable today. And let me know what they think of the ending. Is there a supernatural explanation or not?