As William Shakespeare famously said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But you have to wonder what old Willy would say about something named a Mongolian Death Worm. Maybe it would inspire him the way it did Robert Greenberger, the author of the horror novella Sand And Secrets (paperback, Kindle), the latest in eSpec Book’s Systema Parodoxa series of novellas about cryptids. In the following email interview, Greenberger discusses why he liked the name so much, and how it inspired the rest of his story.
To start, what cryptid have you written about in Sand And Secrets, where do they live, and what do they do?
When I saw the name Mongolian Death Worm on the list provided by Dani [eSpec’s co-founder, publisher, and senior editor], I couldn’t resist and claimed it immediately.
Of course, with a name like that, it lives in the Mongolian Desert and apparently only emerges during the two-month rainy season, rising from its sleeping place below the surface, and attacking animals where it lays its eggs.
And then what is Sand And Secrets about, and when and where does it take place?
We start in Russia, where an American graduate student is doing a summer internship. A guy tries to impress her by showing her a Death Worm carcass, which leads both of them to be taken on an expedition to find a living sample.
What inspired this story?
I was taught that all good stories come from character, and in this case, the Mongolian Death Worm was the character, and its legends helped inspire the story told. As I began researching the Death Worm, things began to fall into place. While the visual interpretations varied, the legends I found in my research were consistent, so I began asking myself questions to try and fill in the gaps.
As the answers began to occur to me, the story took shape. It was a march across the desert in search of the worm with a skeptical band of people, all of whom become believers by the story’s end. Why would anyone go looking for the Mongolian Death Worm? What sort of people would go on such a hunt? Between the research and those questions, I found my protagonist, an American for reader identification, mixed in with Russians and Mongolians so we had multiple perspectives on the legend.
And is there any connection between Sand And Secrets and any other Systema Parodox books?
No, this is self-contained. Crossing over with other stories didn’t even occur to me.
The Systema Parodoxa novellas are typically horror stories, but also incorporate other genres. How do you classify Sand And Secrets, genre-wise?
I see this as more of a horror thriller story, the slow build of tension and skepticism giving away to some thrills and chills.
You’ve written dozens of novels and comic books. Are there any authors, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Sand And Secrets but not on anything else you’ve written?
In 2006-2007 I wrote for and then worked on staff for Weekly World News, so that was my training ground for this story. I tend not to read horror fiction, and when I worked on Fangoria, it was during the rise of torture horror, not traditional monster horror, so that was a secondary source of inspiration.
And then what about non-literary influences; was Sand And Secrets influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’m going to disappoint you and say nothing beyond my research was influential. Again, I tend not to read or watch horror.
Which probably makes my next question moot as well: Do you think Sand And Secrets could work as a movie or show or game?
SyFy did a terrible movie about the Death Worm, but it’s been long enough that, in the hands of a good writer, this could be a fine springboard for an adaptation.
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as Ella and the other main characters?
I see this as a film, and therefore the lead needs to be a twenty-something actress who could convincingly appear to be a zoological graduate student. Based on their body of work I could see Olivia Cooke [House Of Dragons], Hailee Steinfeld [Hawkeye], Amandla Steinberg [The Hate U Give], or Chloë Grace Moretz [The Peripheral]. For the male Russian lead, Alexander Kuznetsov [Our Men] or Yuri Borisov [The Bull] come to mind.
By the way, the heroine’s name is actually that of one of my students, with her permission.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Sand And Secrets?
For me, this was a challenge because I’ve never written a novel, nor have I written something considered horror (the closest being two Predator stories). As a writer, I like challenges and trying to stretch the authorial muscles in new ways. Thankfully, wherever I strayed, Dani refocused me. She made certain our protagonist felt right under the circumstances.
Finally, if someone enjoys Sand And Secrets, which of your other books would you suggest they read and why that one?
If they like creepy crawlies and horror, then my short story in Predator: Eyes Of The Demon is a good starting point. If they just like the writing, I would steer them towards any of the Crazy 8 Press or eSpec Books anthologies I have tales in. A complete list can be found at my website.