In the following email interview about their new “sawmill Gothic” novella The Secret Skin (paperback), writer Wendy N. Wagner not only explains what she means by “sawmill Gothic,” but also how, in a weird way, this story is a bit of a history lesson.
To begin, what is The Secret Skin about, and when and where does it take place?
The Secret Skin is the story of June, a young art teacher in 1926 who escaped her wealthy family’s seaside estate in order to live her own life, improper as it might seem to her relatives. But when her brother decides to take his second wife on a honeymoon in Mexico, he begs June to come take care of his nine-year-old daughter.
Once she arrives, June realizes that things at Storm Break — the estate — have drastically changed since she lived there. The family’s wealth is diminishing. Her niece has mysterious powers that may or may not be connected to the unsettling sounds June hears at night. And when her brother unexpectedly returns home, June finds herself dangerously attracted to her new sister-in-law, who has plenty of secrets of her own.
It’s a story filled with sex, drugs, and, well, ragtime, I guess. After all, it’s the 1920s!
And is there a reason you set it at Shore Acres, the former estate of shipbuilding and lumber tycoon Louis J. Simpson, as opposed to Hearst Castle or The Playboy Mansion or my mom’s house in New Jersey?
We all know that New Jersey is a fantastically creepy place to set a gothic novel! I might have to go visit your mom to do research for my next project.
No, the main reason I picked Shore Acres is that there aren’t very many great houses in Oregon, and most of them aren’t located in wild and beautiful locations. But Shore Acres has an absolutely fantastic set of grounds. I grew up going there — I think the first time I visited was for a school field trip, where we were given a tour of the gardens. Imagine a Japanese and botanical garden perched on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the sea. It really grabs the imagination.
I had originally set the story in Estacada, a small town close to Portland that has a really strong timber history. But my family took a camping trip down the Oregon coast, and we stopped to visit Shore Acres. It was fun to show my husband and daughter around the grounds of this place I’d visited so many times as a youngster. But this time I paid a lot more attention to the history of the family, and I really felt inspired by them and the old house. They were powerful and important people, and they threw these huge parties that the most important and richest people in Oregon and Northern California attended. I wanted to imagine all the things that house must have seen before it burned to the ground and the land was donated to the state. So I did.
So where did you get the idea for The Secret Skin, what inspired it?
I really wanted to write a story that captured what Oregon was like, historically. It was a place where the future arrived very unequally — by 1905, there was a fully electrified streetcar system connecting Portland to its suburbs, but at the same time, most of the state still lacked paved roads or railroad connections. There’s a reason why people in Southern Oregon were so angry with the state government that they wanted to secede. (Secession efforts were spearheaded several times in the 1930s, with the largest blossoming in 1941.)
The state’s economy was also powerfully dominated by the timber industry. Incredible fortunes were made — but most of that money was funneled away to the headquarters of timber companies in Minneapolis and San Francisco. So I thought writing a story about a timber magnate offered a good way to tap into that wonderful gothic tradition of rich families whose fortunes are beginning to wane.
I wasn’t sure what the story would be, but I came up with the phrase “sawmill Gothic” and wanted to explore what that could possibly mean.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. What does “sawmill Gothic” mean?
You might find it hard to believe now, but before the early 2000s, Oregon was pretty much a cultural backwater. Nobody outside the Pacific Northwest knew or cared anything about Portland. It was a really, really minor sort of town until suddenly we were the place to get ridiculous donuts and ice cream. Growing up in Oregon, I always felt like a cultural imposter, just so backwoods and rural and anti-cosmopolitan. Hell, I grew up saying “crick” instead of “creek.”
So I always felt like the real stories were happening in other places, preferably in New York or England. I was a serious Anglophile as a kid. And I guess that sort of rebounded when I was in my 20s. I became really obsessed with the idea of exploring Oregon to its utmost. (I still am! I have this ridiculous project where I plan to go running in all thirty-six of Oregon’s counties and then write about them.) I started writing things in all kinds of genres, but setting them in Oregon (or Oregon-like places, as I did in my sci-fi novel An Oath Of Dogs). Eventually, I reached the idea of setting a Gothic story here. But with Oregon’s economic history, I figured the people in it would all have something to do with lumber.
The Secret Skin is your fifth book after An Oath Of Dogs, The Deer Kings, and your two Pathfinder Tales novels, Starspawn and Skinwalkers. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Secret Skin but not on anything else you’ve written?
This book is very much an homage to two of my very favorite novels: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I don’t know how much of that comes through in the novella outside of the framing. The novella is actually told in the form of a letter from June to her lover, and the first sentence is a very deliberate rip-off of the first sentence of Rebecca. I’d like to think that the ending wraps around in a way that speaks of Hill House, but that might just be pure vanity.
A lot of the characters (as well as the troubled romance) was inspired by Jane Austen and the Brontës, as well.
How about non-literary influences; was The Secret Skin influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not so much film or games, but The Secret Skin was deeply influenced by a particular song: “Jacob Black” from the score to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. I would play it at the beginning of every writing session to set the tone, usually followed by the soundtrack to The Piano. There’s something about the piece, which is a light but melancholy piano theme, that perfectly captured the character of June.
When not writing your own stuff, you edit other people’s stories as the Senior Editor and the Managing Editor of the sci-fi / fantasy magazine Lightspeed, and as the Editor-In-Chief of the horror magazine Nightmare. How do you think editing other writers influenced how you wrote The Secret Skin?
I think The Secret Skin is my work that I’ve written with the most careful attention to the prose, which is certainly an effect of editing so many other people’s fiction. I spend a very great deal of time sitting with stories and asking myself questions about whether a word or a clause is supporting a certain effect the writer is working toward or if things make sense or if they sound good. I think it really shows in this book. I’ve very proud of some of the sentences.
As I mentioned a moment ago, you’ve written other books, the most recent of which, The Deer Kings, came out just a few weeks ago. People can read the earlier interview we did about that book, but for people allergic to clicking, what is The Deer Kings about, and when and where is it set?
The Deer Kings is the story of a group of latchkey kids who summon a supernatural protector in order to protect themselves from a sadistic drug dealer. But as adults, the group discovers that their small town is now worshipping the creature as a god — ritual sacrifice and all. And who makes a better sacrifice than a god’s creator?
Like The Secret Skin, the story is set on the Oregon coast, but in this case, the story moves back and forth between 1989 and 2018.
The Deer Kings is an occult horror novel. But is it scary or were you going for more of a Stranger Things-esque horror adventure vibe?
I’m a terrible judge of whether or not my own work is scary. But I was definitely trying to go with more of an unsettling, creepy vibe than a horror adventure one. And a friend with an early copy said on Twitter that it made his skin want to crawl off his body, so I feel like I must have done okay.
Going back to The Secret Skin, I asked earlier if it had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Secret Skin could also work as a movie, show, or game?
I think The Secret Skin would make a great film. The setting — with the cliffs, and the sea, and the gardens — would be an extremely lovely background for all the romance and nefarious family secrets. It’s one of those stories that’s just packed full of difficult relationships that play out in pursed lips and smoldering glances — I think it would be a delight to see it on screen.
And do you have any thoughts about casting?
My dream cast would start with [The Queen’s Gambit‘s] Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of Lillian, the beautiful new bride. I love Anya Taylor-Joy! She has such a commanding presence, and such a way of being weird and uncanny while being incredibly, mind-bogglingly beautiful. And Lillian is just like that. She’s not what anybody expects, but she’s very hot while doing it.
I’d love to see someone like [Tenet‘s] Robert Pattinson playing Frederick, the brother. He’s so good at doing handsome and likeable, but kind of off people — yeah, he’d be perfect. And the creepy housekeeper would be perfectly played by Frances Conroy [Joker]. She has the most amazing way of looking at people as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
But I’m not sure who would play June, though. It’s tough, because she’s not meant to be conventionally attractive, and most actors are. I sort of pictured [Argo‘s] Clea DuVall when I was writing the book, but of course she’s a bit too old for the role now.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Secret Skin, what similar novella of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
Well, it’s not a novella, but I think Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic would be a perfect match. It’s got a family with secrets, a heroine in trouble, and it’s a great match for the time, too. It was one of my favorite books of 2020.