Given that it’s centered around kids who summon a nature god, only to have it bite them in the ass years later, you probably expect that Wendy N. Wagner’s occult horror novel The Deer Kings (paperback, digital) to be influenced by Stephen King’s It. And it is. But as Wagner explains in the following email interview, The Deer Kings was inspired by something a bit more fuzzy.
I always like to begin with an overview of a novel’s plot. So, what is The Deer Kings about, and when and where does it take place?
The novel cuts back and forth in time, starting with a group of kids in 1989 who live in rural Oregon. They’re all dealing with a lot of shit: one’s a lesbian in a state that was just introducing legislation targeting LGBTQ residents; one has parents who are drug addicts; one’s the child of a single mother; and two are psychic. But they’re all poor and living in a town where there’s not a lot of hope for economic improvement. One way or another, they all become targets for a cruel drug dealer who moves to town. To protect themselves, they summon a being they call “The Deer Saint.” Unfortunately, other people find out about the Deer Saint and try to use it to their own advantage. It gets…pretty scary.
In the now, the kids are all grown up, and not a single one of them wants to see their hometown ever again. But unfortunately, one of them — Gary — has a wife who gets hired as the high school principal in their old hometown. When he gets there, he discovers the town has formed a cult around the Deer Saint, and they’re super into ritual sacrifice. Worse, they seem to think that sacrificing the Deer Saint’s creators might be the ticket to saving their town (and winning the state football championship!). So Gary has to reconnect with his former best friends to try to save himself and his family.
Where did you get the idea for The Deer Kings?
My husband was part of an art show here in Portland, and I needed a break from the crowd, so I went to get a drink and sit down. And I looked across the room, and there was this taxidermied deer head on the wall, casting this enormous shadow. I’d just seen the movie Black Mountain Side, which is this creepy independent movie featuring cosmic horror and an evil deer entity, and suddenly I was just really inspired to write something about making sacrifices to a Deer God. It went through a lot of different forms before it finally became this novel, which is heavily inspired by growing up poor and weird in the early ’90s in Oregon.
It sounds like The Deer Kings is an occult horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Yeah, “occult horror” is a great way to describe it! It’s got ghosts and cults and creepy deer monsters, so that really seems to fit.
It’s also partially about kids who are in their very early teens (I think two characters are twelve, and the other three are just about to start high school), who spend a lot of the novel cycling around their town. So it’s also a “kids on bikes” kind of story. That’s a subgenre I really love.
The Deer Kings is your fourth book after An Oath Of Dogs and the two Pathfinder novels you wrote, Starspawn and Skinwalkers. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Deer Kings but not on anything else you’ve written?
If I had to describe The Deer Kings in one of those “it’s X meets X” kind of comparisons, I’d say it’s It meets Friday Night Lights.
I was thinking it sounded very It-like…
The It part of that is definitely intentional. When I was wrestling with one of the early drafts of this book, I re-read It, which I had been sort of “meh” about when I read it as a youngster. On the re-read, I totally fell in love with the story — I am a real sucker for stories about friendships that are annealed into some kind of fellowship stronger than mere friendliness. And I knew I wanted to tell a fellowship kind of story. I actually came up with an idea for a story about kids being tormented by the local drug dealer, and suddenly I thought “What if I combine this kid-fellowship novel concept with my Deer God horror novel concept?” And suddenly the book just came together in my head, and it worked.
But I also always knew I wanted to write a book about magic and football. Growing up in a small town, football is a really exciting thing. My family was never really a football kind of family, but when I went to high school, I had a lot of friends in the pep band, and my best friend and I would go to all the home games so we could hang out with the band. The music, the lights, the crowd — it was all so powerful and thrilling. I can barely tell you what the rules of the game are (There is yardage? And downs? And shoulder pads?), but I remember loving the crisp fall air (always turning to fog at home on the coast), the way the announcer’s voice winds up higher and higher as someone is running with the ball, the way a cheerleader’s hair moves when she’s launched into the air.
I was doing research for the novel when I read Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. It’s nonfiction, set in the same time period as The Deer Kings, and it’s all about a town in Texas where football is huge. (There’s also a movie, which is pretty good, and a TV show, of which I’ve only seen a few episodes, but man, it’s gripping.) Football is not as big a deal in Oregon as it is in Texas, but I thought it would be fun to dial up things a notch or two in The Deer Kings.
Speaking of movies and TV shows, did any of those things, or maybe some games, have a big influence on The Deer Kings?
Obviously, the movie Black Mountain Side was an influence. If you haven’t seen that one, you should check it out! It’s like The Thing, but set in Canada. And with an evil deer instead of a shape-shifting dog. What’s not to like?
But the biggest non-literary influence on this book was definitely my life. At one point, we had this really creepy neighbor who rode a motorcycle and hung out with really violent, dangerous people. One night a guy we knew stopped by at midnight because he’d been stabbed in the shoulder during a fight next door (I totally used that in the novel). My mom bandaged him up like a total pro. At a different house, we had the police ask us to watch our neighbors because they were suspected of selling meth. I remember trying to watch TV while a group of men stood around beating and kicking another dude while he screamed and cried. I called the cops, but they never came.
I had a really terrific childhood, but looking back on it, there were definitely a lot of people at the edge of my life — neighbors and community members — who were folks I wouldn’t want my kid being around. There was a lot of child neglect, a lot of poverty, a lot of alcohol and drug abuse. But it was the ’80s and early ’90s, and it was the middle of nowhere, and nobody had any money to do better. I think a lot of people were just trying to survive the best they could. It wasn’t like I personally was living in dangerous situations, but there was a lot of low-grade scary and unpleasant stuff that I was able to tap into when I was writing The Deer Kings.
And lastly for the influence questions, what about, and I’m quoting your bio here, “…a Muppet disguised as a dog.” What impact did your pooch have on The Deer Kings that your two large cats and “very understanding family” did not?
We actually just adopted Beansy (our ridiculous dog) last summer, while The Deer Kings was out on submission. Seriously, her big influence was probably just distracting me from having a book out on sub!
Ah, I was thinking maybe Beansy also had an influence on your previous novel, An Oath Of Dogs.
It’s kind of amazing, but I’d never really had a dog before Beansy. We had dogs when I was a little kid, but they were “working dogs” that weren’t allowed in the house. I’ve only really had cats as pets, but I always wanted a dog. Which I guess shows, because there’s a heroic dog in my novel Skinwalkers, a heroic dog in An Oath Of Dogs, and there are a couple of important (albeit minor) dog characters in The Deer Kings, too.
The biggest reason we finally got a dog is because I got promoted to editor-in-chief at Nightmare Magazine, and I felt like I probably didn’t need to worry about having to get a day job anymore. I only wanted to have a dog if I knew I was going to be home with them. They’re such a big responsibility.
But I do think Beansy will be a big influence on future work. She’s the perfect horror writer’s pet — she’s got this amazing ability to find gross, creepy stuff on every walk. Today we found a dead baby crow, a mummified mole, and the back half of a rat. This is the third “back half of a rat” that we’ve found, too.
Speaking of An Oath Of Dogs, in the interview we did for it, you said you had written a connected short story called “The Writing Wall.” Do you have any short stories connected to The Deer Kings?
It’s funny you should ask this, because one of my first attempts to write this novel turned into a short story called “The Deer God.” It’s about a guy named Gary who makes a deal with a local deity to help his mentally ill son. It actually found a home in an anthology last year called Places We Fear To Tread.
I love that story! But on its first outing, it was rejected by an editor who made a lot of really smart suggestions about how he thought it could work better. My knee-jerk, grumpy reaction to the rejection was “That’s stupid! The way to fix this story is to make it a novel!”
I have no idea why I thought that was a reasonable solution, but it seems to have worked out okay.
Has there been any talk of doing a collection of your short fiction?
I’d love to do a collection of my short fiction! I’ve got forty-nine short stories that have been published, with a handful more out on submission and a few resting peacefully in my writing trunk. But none of my shorts are particularly famous or critically acclaimed, so there’s not exactly a huge interest in publishing a collection of them…yet.
Now, along with The Deer Kings, you also have a novella coming out October 26th called The Secret Skin. What is that about, and when and where is it set?
The novella is set on the Oregon coast (like The Deer Kings), and it’s set in the 1920s. It’s the story of a young woman, June, who unwillingly returns to her family’s estate when her brother begs her to look after his nine-year-old daughter while he takes his second honeymoon. When June arrives, she’s forced to deal with her family’s legacy of dark secrets — while coping with a haunted house, a niece with mysterious powers, and a very nasty housekeeper. If you like spooky house stories, it’s for you.
Did you write The Deer Kings and The Secret Skin either at the same time or back-to-back?
With the way I write, things tend to get written in fits and spurts that mix up all the timelines. I actually started The Secret Skin over ten years ago. It was supposed to be a novel, but after the first 10,000 words or so, it went badly off the rails, and I wound up stuffing it in the trunk to ferment. Luckily, a friend kept asking me about the project; she liked the concept of a “sawmill gothic” as much as I did. So I kept thinking about it. At some point in writing The Deer Kings, I got frustrated and put it in the trunk for a while, and that’s about the time I returned to the gothic project. I pushed it forward in time twenty years and moved it to the Oregon coast, and those changes let me shed a lot of the problems I’d had with it.
I think working on The Deer Kings, which is also set on the Oregon coast, let me think about The Secret Skin in a whole new way. And finishing The Secret Skin gave me a boost of confidence to finish The Deer Kings. They really wound up informing each other, even though they’re two very different styles of writing in two very different formats.
I asked earlier if The Deer Kings had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Deer Kings could also work as a movie, show, or game?
Oh, I think The Deer Kings would great as a movie or a game, but I’m going to say it would be the most fun as a video game. I love horror video games. I also really love video games with a focus on strong narratives and environmental storytelling — which I think would be a terrific way to experience the story of The Deer Kings.
Almost the entirety of The Deer Kings unfolds in unique “sets” that the characters explore, ranging from a history museum where Gary examines historic artifacts and old photographs, to a fishing cabin that might have been the site of a murder, to a campground that Gary’s ability to see ghosts allows him to uncover a tragic mining disaster. As a player, it would be terrific to be able to explore all the areas of the novel, searching for ghosts and clues about what the town’s cult is up to.
So if someone wanted to make a game based on The Deer Kings, what kind of game should it be and who should make it?
I’d say that Portland’s own Fullbright Games — home of such environmental storytelling greats as Gone Home and Tacoma — would be the perfect company for it, but I just saw that one of the founders had to step down due to mistreating his employees. So I’d have to say I’d want to see The Deer Kings adapted by DontNod, the team behind my all-time favorite game, Life Is Strange (and also the totally fun Vampyr). Life Is Strange, and its connected games Captain Spirit and Life Is Strange 2, do great work creating control systems that emphasize the narrative elements, and I think the treatment of magical powers in Strange shows how well the company would handle the magic in The Deer Kings.
Plus, the whole Life Is Strange series is set in the Pacific Northwest, so they know a thing or two about how the area should look (despite being a French company).
Finally, if someone enjoys The Deer Kings, what occult horror novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
I think they’d love The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford. It’s the story of a boy in the 1960s who tries to investigate the strange happenings in his small town, a town his little sister seems to be influencing when she plays with his family’s homemade town model. It’s full of oddball residents, creepy little moments, a weird kind of magic, and a dark coming of age. It’s one of my favorites.