In his new novel The Devil Aspect (hardcover, Kindle), writer Craig Russell has either created a work of Gothic horror…or the basis of a Tony Award-winning musical. You can decide for yourself after reading the following email interview.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Russel
I always like to begin with a plot overview. So, what is The Devil Aspect about?
It takes place in Czechoslovakia in 1935, with the very immediate threat looming from neighboring Nazi Germany. Viktor Kosarek, a young psychiatrist and disciple of Carl Gustav Jung, takes up a post in a remote castle asylum which houses only six patients: the so-called Devil’s Six, the most infamous insane murderers in Europe. Each of the six has his or her own unique tale of madness and murder, and Viktor tries to unravel each to isolate a part of the human psyche, the part responsible for all the evil humankind commits; he has labelled this element “the Devil Aspect.” Meanwhile, in nearby Prague, another monster holds the terrified city in his grasp. Known as “Leather Apron,” he seems to be imitating the murders of Jack The Ripper in London, sixty years before. Woven throughout is the dark presence of Slavic myth and legend.
So, basically, it’s a light-hearted comedy romp through pre-war Europe with those crazy, fun-lovin’ Czechs. The movie rights have been bought by Columbia Pictures but personally I think there is great scope for Devil Aspect: The Musical, with unforgettable numbers like “You make me feel so Jung” and “I say ‘tomahto,’ you say ‘tomayto,’ I’m gonna cut your whole head off.”
Where did you get the idea for The Devil Aspect and how did it evolve as you wrote the book?
I was in the Czech Republic, standing in the great hall of Castle Karlstejn — as you do — when I imagined what it would be like converted into an asylum. Again, as you do. Instantly, the story started to take form in my head. I should point out for those who have never visited, that Castle Karlstejn is one of the spookiest places on the planet. I’ve always said that it would be turned down by a house-hunting Dracula for having a bad vibe.
Although that was the initial genesis of the story, I have to admit that the idea of writing something that combined Jungian psychology with dark myth and legend was something that had been going around in my head for years. As I wrote the book, all of the various elements I’d been toying with coalesced into this single tale. People often say that the research must have been onerous — and there was a lot of research as I wrote — but the truth is most of it was already in my head through years of personal interest.
I know you said The Devil Aspect is a light-hearted comedy, but it sounds like a horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’d say it has a strong psychological horror element, but I would class it first and foremost as a Gothic novel. Obviously, it has a crime story woven through it as well. I find it difficult to classify because I never think in terms of genres. I just follow the directions the story wants to take. But yes, The Devil Aspect is mainly a Gothic horror tale.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Devil Aspect but not on any of your other novels?
My inspirations are wide and varied — and I like to think my writing is too. I think that everything I have read has had an influence on all of my books, but there’s no doubt that there are writers and stories that have had significant influences on The Devil Aspect: Franz Kafka, M.R. James, Gustav Meyrink, Algernon Blackwood, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne Du Maurier, Ira Levin, Robert Bloch… I think Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a towering piece of psychological terror…and much, much subtler and nuanced than the movie. I used to read a lot of Ray Bradbury when I was a teenager, and his ability to paint with words has been a huge influence. All of these writers have been assembled in my writer’s unconscious for some time, screaming at me to write a Gothic horror. And of course there was a lot of less worthy stuff: as a kid I ate up all the Dennis Wheatley books, that kind of stuff.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on The Devil Aspect?
It’s all in there in the mix, I suppose: all the movies and TV shows that have left something lingering after passing through my consciousness and having an impact on my writing.
One of the main themes of The Devil Aspect is the folklore and mythology of Central and Eastern Europe — I guess that growing up a 20th century boy meant that a lot of my folklore and myth came from a screen of one type or another. In tone, I would say the original Twilight Zones — the ones Rod Serling was proud of — had a massive effect and I recognized a form of storytelling that really spoke to me. I’ve often described the movie Psycho as the perfect creative storm: Robert Bloch’s fantastic novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, and Bernard Hermann’s score. When I was a kid, I ate up old black and white horror, Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. There’s a Spanish short film from the early ’70s, made of course during the Franco era, called La Cabina. It is perfectly crafted: a comedy about a man trapped in a phone box and the inept efforts of others to free him. But then, as the film progresses, the viewer’s sense of unease builds until there is this sudden, precipitous plunge into outright horror. It was also a satire on Francoism, but if there’s one thing you’ve got to love about fascists and censors, is they haven’t the brains to spot someone making a statement through allegory.
One thing I remember from childhood was seeing an animated Czech children’s program that scared me witless, yet fascinated me: imagine Sesame Street written by Franz Kafka and directed by Fritz Lang. Maybe that, and my later reading of Kafka and Meyrink, created an early association between Bohemia and horror.
Now, some horror novels are stand-alone stories, while others are parts of larger sagas. What is The Devil Aspect?
I always saw The Devil Aspect as a stand-alone, and the story and character arcs are largely contained within the novel. But then I wrote a short story set in the same fictional location, in and around the castle of Hrad Orlu, but centuries before during witch trials — which made me see there was potential for farther development. And, of course, the epilogue of The Devil Aspect does open up the possibility for taking the story farther. But, for the moment, I see it as a stand-alone. However, it marks the beginning of a new direction, with another stand-alone Gothic novel to follow.
Now, as you mentioned, The Devil Aspect is already being made into a movie. What can you tell us about it? Like, are you writing the script, have they found a director yet…?
No, I’m not writing the script, and there is a name in place for it, but I’m not allowed to say who! Sony/Columbia Films could not be more enthusiastic about the project and it’s all very exciting. I think I might try to wangle a bit part though. My Fabel novels have been made into movies in Germany and I appeared in the latest movie, Carneval, as a German detective. I think my appearance is the most important 3.5 seconds in the entire movie, although opinion is divided on the matter: I think it is, everyone else thinks it isn’t.
Would you have wanted to write the script if you’d been given the chance?
Yes. A German actor recently asked me if I’d ever thought of writing screenplays because of the strength, in his opinion, of my dialogue writing. Also, everything I have written has been developed for the screen or has been acquired for adaptation, so I guess my style is pretty cinematic. But in the meantime, I have so many novels to write.
As you may know, writers don’t usually get a say about what actors play what roles in the movies based on their books. But if they asked, who would you like them to cast in The Devil Aspect movie?
I’d point you, and the Casting Director, back to my previous remarks about my 3.5 second appearance in Carneval. I’m available, is what I’m saying. Other than me, I struggle to think of who would fit. Maybe Adrien Brody as Viktor?
Finally, if someone enjoys The Devil Aspect, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
The Fabelseries is set in modern-day Hamburg, Germany, but is most definitely Gothic in tone. Two titles in particular: Brother Grimm, in which a killer is staging his killings to mimic the folktales gathered by the Brothers Grimm, or The Ghosts Of Altona which involves former members of a university Gothic Society meeting grizzly ends. I like grizzly ends, they’re so me.