As a kid who grew up in the suburbs, in a cul-de-sac, and with an active imagination, few things were scarier when I was small than new neighbors. Though I never imagined they’d be like the emotional vampires in Tim Waggoner’s new novel, The Forever House (hardcover, paperback). In the following email interview, he not only discusses what inspired and influenced this horror-adjacent dark fantasy tale, but also how it was impacted by a certain alien he wrote about recently.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot: What is The Forever House about?
It’s about several dysfunctional families living in a cul-de-sac in a small Ohio town. A mysterious family moves into a house where a murder-suicide occurred several years ago, and they invite their new neighbors over for a get-together. This family, the Eldreds, are in reality inhuman creatures that feed on dark emotions, and they’ve created pocket dimensions inside their home based on the fears and obsessions of their neighbors in order to psychologically (and physically) torture them to heighten their negative emotions. The Eldreds lure the humans into their house to begin feeding, and if the humans have any hope of survival, they’ll have to put aside their differences and work together — if they can.
Where did you get the idea for The Forever House, and how did this story evolve as you wrote it?
Most of my novels are a combination of several different ideas, and this one was no different. One of the things I like to do is play around with common tropes, and I’d been thinking of using the Bad Place trope in a novel for a while. Around that time, I was watching a series on Investigation Discovery called The Nightmare Next Door, and that inspired me to think about how I could use the Dangerous Outsiders Move Into A Neighborhood trope in a novel. I’d also been thinking about doing a riff on the Wacky Monster Family That Lives Next Door trope (you know, like The Munsters or The Addams Family). But I’d make the family in my novel deadly instead of funny. I’d already published a couple novels with Flame Tree Press [The Mouth Of The Dark and They Kill], so when it came time to pitch new novel ideas to my editor, Don D’Auria, I took the different ideas I’d been mulling over for a while and blended them together. Don loved what I came up with, and so I got started writing.
I always outline my novels, but sometimes the outlines are only a basic idea of the overall story, and I end up working out a lot of the details as I go. In the outline for The Forever House, I hadn’t developed all the human characters fully yet, so as I did this, the structure of the novel changed to accommodate their specific personalities. When I first outlined the book, I hadn’t fully realized how many main characters there were — fifteen in all — and to do them all justice meant the book grew to be longer than I expected. I also initially imagined that most of the novel’s action would occur inside the Eldred’s house, but just as much ended up taking place outside the house, and I think that balance works much better for the book. Readers will have to let me know if that’s true.
The Forever House sounds like it’s a horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I think of my original novels as dark fantasy more than straight horror. I’m 56 now. When I was in my early twenties, I’d already finished a couple (unpublishable) novels, and I became intrigued with dark contemporary fantasy. (There was no urban fantasy genre back then, not as we know it today.) I loved Charles DeLint’s novels, but while the fantasy elements existed in an urban environment, they were separate from the real world. I was reading a lot of horror at the time as well, and I couldn’t understand why — if authors could incorporate the supernatural into their stories — they chose to do so in such limited ways. I decided it would be cool to try to blend horror and fantasy in order to create something new. I didn’t try writing fiction like this for a while, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe the idea needed to gestate in me for a while. I kept writing (unpublishable) fantasy novels, and along the way I discovered the novels of Clive Barker and Jonathan Carroll, who were creating works of true dark fantasy in the way that I’d imagined it. Eventually I started experimenting with my own type of dark fantasy in short stories — one in which the characters’ psychological states are often manifested in the setting and threats they face — and editors bought them and readers seemed to like them. I then gave a dark fantasy novel a go, and that became The Harmony Society. That novel came out in 2003. Since then I’ve written twelve novels in this vein (The Forever House is number twelve), eight novellas, and five urban fantasy novels that are more humorous versions of this style (The Nekropolis and Shadow Watch series).
I’m not one of those writers who gets fussed about what kind of writer people consider them to be, though. I’m perfectly happy to be thought of a horror writer. I guess I think of my dark fantasy as my particular flavor of horror.
It also kind of sounds like a vampire story. Why did you decide to make them emotional vampires as opposed to the blood sucking kind?
I’m a lifelong horror fan, and I love everything about horror, including all the popular tropes like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. But I believe that the more well-known a trope is, the more familiar readers are with it, the less effective it is — especially in horror. My Nekropolis books are all about weird spins on well-known horror tropes, but for my dark fantasy novels, I try to avoid the usual tropes and come up with something different. The Eldred are emotional vampires, but hopefully they’re different from what most readers expect from that trope. Plus, making them emotional vampires gave me the opportunity to focus on the human characters’ relationships and psychological issues since those form the basis for what the Eldred feed on.
And should we read anything into the fact that you wrote a story about emotional vampires? Are you okay? Do you need to talk?
I’ve had lots of therapy, take antidepressants, and my wife and kids keep a close eye on me. I’m fine — or at least as fine as I’m going to get!
I’m also curious why you decided to set The Forever House in a quiet suburb as opposed to an even more quiet rural town or maybe a noisy city?
I wanted a setting where people lived closed to one another but were also isolated in a way. A suburban cul-de-sac in a small town seemed like the best feel. Despite the fantastical elements in my fiction (or maybe because of them) I like to draw on elements of my real life to build my stories. Just everyday things like places I’ve lived, things I’ve seen, people I’ve talked to, the weather outside my window, etc. I’ve spent most of my life living in small to medium-sized Ohio towns, so they tend to be the setting for my dark fantasy / horror. (I like to use cities for my urban fantasies, though). Small to medium-sized towns are like microcosms — you can get areas that are more country, some that are more urban, some upscale, some more modest, some rundown and dangerous… There’s a lot to draw on in those settings, a lot of different possibilities to play with — at least for me.
As you mentioned, The Forever House is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Forever House but not on any of your previous work?
Haunted house novels like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, Richard Matheson’s Hell House, Bentley Little’s The Haunted. All three of these writers are influences on me in general (along with so many others), but I looked to these novels for inspiration while writing The Forever House. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s novels since Salem’s Lot was first released, but this is the first time I’ve consciously used his trope of a group of disparate characters coming together to face a threat.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of them have a big influence on The Forever House?
As I said earlier, The Munsters and The Addams Family. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, too, since they’re the hardcore version of the weird horror family trope.
Now that I think of it, maybe the Saw and Cube movies in a way, since they feature a group of characters making their way through structures filled with dangerous traps.
Along with The Forever House, you also recently put out Alien: Prototype, a novel connected to the Alien movies. We went into more detail about that book in the interview we did a few months ago [which you can read here], but for those who haven’t read this book or that Q&A, what is Alien: Prototype about and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the movies?
Alien: Prototype is about a disgraced Colonial Marine named Zula Hendricks who has to deal with an especially deadly mutated Xenomorph created by Venture, a corporate competitor to Weyland-Yutani. The novel takes place between Alien and Aliens. It also takes place after the video game Alien: Isolation, and between the comic series Alien: Defiance (which is where the character of Zula originated) and its follow-up Alien: Resistance.
Given how close together they’re coming out, is it safe to assume you wrote Alien: Prototype and The Forever House at the same time or back-to-back?
How then do you think The Forever House influenced Alien: Prototype?
I wrote Prototype first. In that book, Zula is training a group of corporate security personnel who will accompany colonists and protect them from dangerous native lifeforms. There were a number of other characters, too, and juggling such a large cast in that novel helped get me ready to work with another large cast in The Forever House.
Did you ever come up with something for one book but either realized it would work better for the other?
I can’t think of anything. The closest thing to that is what I said earlier, when I worked with a large cast of characters in Prototype, which got me ready to do the same thing in The Forever House. I usually know which novel I’m going to be working on next, so as I write the current book, I’ve got the other one in the back of my mind. It’s not unusual for me to write scenes in a current book that help me explore, on one level or another, elements of the next book.
So what other books do you have coming out this year?
I’ll have another novel for Flame Tree Press called Your Turn To Suffer (about a woman harassed by a mysterious organization called the Cabal) coming out later in 2020. (I’m just about done writing it.) After that, I’ll be writing another novel for Flame Tree called We Rise Again (about a ghost apocalypse). I’m not sure when that one will be out, though. I’ll also have a book on writing horror called Writing In The Dark coming out from Raw Dog Screaming Press in 2020. I’m very excited for this one, as it’s the culmination of thirty years of my writing and teaching.
Speaking of all these books, has anyone asked if you were C.M. Waggoner, author of Unnatural Magic, which came out a week before Alien: Prototype?
Nope! My secret is still safe.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Forever House, what similarly scary novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?