In the 1978 horror movie Magic, Anthony Hopkins is the man behind a scary ventriloquist dummy. But while writer Jason Marc Harris says his puppet-centric novel Master Of Rods And Strings (paperback, Kindle) is a tale of weird horror (and more), in the following email interview, he says that’s the limit to how much Magic is in his tale…for now.
First off, what is Master Of Rods And Strings about, and when and where does it take place?
Set in early 20th century Southern France, the story concerns Elias Clermont’s goal of mastering the art of occult puppetry. His determination hardens after his sister is isolated and abused by their mysterious Uncle Pavan, who runs a puppetry school. Elias loves his sister, but he is jealous of her prowess as a puppeteer, and he resolves to distinguish himself in the art of occult puppetry to fight against forces that have oppressed him and his family. He changes over time from the imaginative loyal young boy into someone who makes physical sacrifices and moral compromises to achieve revenge and attain the potential he believes he must reach to become a paragon of the highest supernatural arts of puppetry.
I plunked Saint-Simeon (the town I invented as an homage to the patron saint of puppeteers) down west of Valence in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Region of south-east central France. The rest of the action occurs in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of Southern France and includes the city of Marseille, the town of Arles, and an archaeological site near Glanum.
Where did you first get the idea for Master Of Rods And Strings, and how, if at all, did that original idea change as you wrote this story?
I decided to write the story in 2013 (during the MFA program at Bowling Green State University). “I will not deny that I have always been fascinated by puppets” was my first sentence of the story, and I kept that from the first stage of composition. Some material that ended up on the cutting room floor included Elias traveling to America, but the overall trajectory — that he would become obsessed with mastering the art of occult puppetry because of his ferocious longing for power and vengeance and both jealousy and love for his sister — those features were constant.
And what kind of puppet do you have in Master Of Rods And Strings? Is it a hand puppet, a ventriloquist dummy, a Muppet…?
Many types of puppets — marionettes, hand and rod puppets, shadow puppets, junk puppets, and trick puppets — from a range of nations. For example, Elias’s Uncle Pavan first presents Gianduja, who is a character puppet from 18th Century Commedia dell’Arte.
But the main puppet that Elias engages with is a “found puppet,” an object that a puppeteer can wield regardless of its original function. Elias discovers this shabby doll — discarded from a mental asylum — in an alley amid other debris. He adapts the doll to puppetry by inserting rods into the doll’s innards, dubs the puppet Virgil, and then over time during Elias’s travels he enhances Virgil with a range of features, such as lynx fangs and badger claws. Elias comes to learn that Virgil has a sentience, and via Virgil, Elias learns more about the old art of puppeteering, when puppetry was a ritual form of communing with ancient supernatural powers.
Why do you think some things that are supposed to delight children — puppets…clowns… — are so easily turned into scary things for adults?
It all depends on context and tradition. A 2014 Telegraph article mentions how pictures of clowns at hospitals are to be discouraged due to scaring kids, yet in in 2020 Forbes presented a study from the British Medical Journal claiming that clowns in-person can make hospital stays more pleasant for kids. The makeup of clowns partly derives from Vice figures in medieval morality plays, so being scary was already built into that tradition there for hundreds of years.
For puppets, there’s also the concept of the uncanny valley: there’s a certain point at which we become more disconcerted by imitations of the human form the closer they come to resemble us if there’s any perceived deviation from expected human behavior or appearance. So, the uncanny refusal of a puppet to drop its smirk or staring eyes may cause fear. For adults, there’s also the added set of associations with popular culture like horror films, so by the time you’re an adult you’re more likely to have been exposed to scary puppets and clowns.
Master Of Rods And Strings sounds like it might be scary. But is it just a horror story?
The earliest draft work was during the MFA program for creative writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio), and my creative thesis advisor Dr. Lawrence Coates remarked that the narrative was a Künstleroman, which is a story that focuses on the development of the artist, so the novella has that in common with works like William Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic The Prelude and James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.
Master Of Rods And Strings is also an example of a literary fairy tale or künstmärchen.
In some regards, Elias like Faust is experiencing forbidden knowledge, but his fate is not bound to punitive dualistic metaphysics. He is able to explore and grow, though his growth is not narrowly good, moralistic, or heroic. This is a tale of weird horror, after all, but it is also a tale of expanding consciousness and meaning.
Master Of Rods And Strings is your first published book of fiction, though you’ve written tons of short stories and radio plays, as well as the non-fiction book Folklore And The Fantastic In Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Master Of Rods And Strings but not on anything else you’ve written?
Thomas Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet” had me pondering the idea of other forces beyond mysterious puppets and mannequins.
I think the fairy tale “The King Of The Golden Mountain” helped shape part of the self-righteousness of Elias’s vengeful mindset and the use of magical power to perform that vengeance. In terms of folkloric influences, use the motif found most famously in The Odyssey with the Polyphemus encounter: the trick of using the phrase “no one” or “no man” for a name; there’s an echo of that when Elias confronts Desmond, the tormenter from the school later after he has surpassed the skills of his tormenter.
I thought of Stendhal’s Julien in The Red And The Black. Both stories take place in France and engage with ambition versus class oppression. I think the bloodthirsty vendettas of Jacobean Revenge tragedies, such as The Revenger’s Tragedie and The Duchess Of Malfi, influenced the plot’s momentum. A few people pointed out comparisons with Perfume, which I had more than a decade before starting Master, so I’m sure there’s influence: an ambitious amoral protagonist perfecting a scent which dangerous consequences vs. perfecting the craft of puppetry with dangerous consequences. Master also has some of the unnerving education manifested in the rapport between the Judge and the Kid in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Elias is horrified by the behavior of Uncle Pavan, but he learns from him as well.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those have a big influence on Master Of Rods And Strings? Because the first thing I thought of when I heard what this book was about was that old horror movie, Magic.
That wasn’t an influence; I have not seen the film. Also, in Magic, the protagonist is terrorized by his ventriloquist dummy; in Master Of Rods And Strings, Elias is not terrified by his puppet.
One source beyond books is a comic I read as a child, which my father provided from the CSUS library: “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from Tales From The Crypt (Volume 1, #28, 1951; story by Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein, art by Graham Ingels). This comic features a man tormented by a monstrous twin growing from his arm. The man is largely overthrown by the will and ferocity of his appendage, and that notion of a person contending with some intimate simulacrum that was more than it seemed — no mere puppet or doll but an entity — was an influence.
So to flip the script, as the kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think Master Of Rods And Strings could work as a movie, show, or game?
A film would be effective with the right atmosphere and focus on setting — would not want to see Master Of Rods And Strings lose the French rural aspects and role of folk art with puppetry celebrated as the key area of fame for a child growing up in fabled St. Simeon. A miniseries would be intriguing. Also a graphic novel would be a fun exploration.
I could also see it as an RPG survival horror video game exploring the world of occult puppetry. A bard-necromancer-puppeteer encountering puzzles and formulae while battling in puppeteering competitions and developing the various dances of symbiotic puppeteering conjuration.
If someone wanted to make it into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Elias, Uncle Pavan, and the other main characters?
Ideally, unknown young actors who can emerge from obscurity, just as Elias and Sonja did, and master their craft while chilling their audiences.
As for the more mature characters, in terms of style perhaps Anthony Hopkins with a beard could play Uncle Pavan.
Which is funny since you said earlier that Master Of Rods And Strings isn’t like the movie Magic, but Hopkins was in Magic.
Right. Maybe it’s because I looked the film Magic up and read how Hopkins played a ventriloquist that it was on my mind, but it’s also because Hopkins exudes this sardonic convivial sense of menace with certain roles. Not just Hannibal but in Titus and The Wolfman, and he’s got that suave villain mystique going with that beard for sure. I could see him rumpling Elias’ hair and saying, “Pick up the strings, my talented boy.” Would be very uncomfortable and perfect.
Finally, if someone enjoys Master Of Rods And Strings, what scary story about an inanimate object would you suggest they read next?
“The Book” (1930) by Margaret Irwin, found in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird. I hadn’t read “The Book” prior to writing Master Of Rods And Strings, but the mental and emotional changes that the main character experiences in Irwin’s story are relatable.