There are a lot of coming-of-age stories about boys, a lot of stories about boys and their dogs, and, of course, coming of age stories about boys and their dogs. But in S.L. Coney’s cosmic horror / dark fantasy novella Wild Spaces (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), we get all of those things…and a monster story. In the following email interview, Coney explains how, and why, as well as where and when and what the hell?
To begin, what is Wild Spaces about, and when and where does it take place?
Wild Spaces is, at its heart, a story about family secrets and generational trauma and what’s lost when that trauma perpetuates. It’s also a coming-of-age story that focuses on a young boy and his dog. It’s been compared to Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and I think that’s a pretty fair comparison. It’s a monster story, but it’s also a very human story.
Though it contains images from my childhood, such as an old Thunderbird with suicide doors and a piece of clothing with “Save The Snail Darter” on it, both of which might place the story in the ’70s or ’80s, it’s meant to be timeless, and I think it does that fairly well. As for setting, it’s set in Charleston, South Carolina a couple of hours from my hometown in Surfside Beach, S.C.
Where did you get the idea for Wild Spaces?
Well, I had read Micaela Morrissette’s The Familiars and was really inspired by the beauty and the way the young character’s play bled over into the real world. I knew I wanted to write something that incorporated that same sort of childhood magic. I’d also had a vision, an image so striking I knew I had to write it. So, I set out with that in mind, but as I dug deeper, I also realized it was a story about secrets and what’s lost when we hold onto those secrets, so the story grew. It became a love letter, of sorts, to my father, and to my mother, though in different ways.
That striking image never made it into the story, by the way. It’s what happens right after the book ends.
Is there a significance to the kid having a dog as opposed to a cat or some other kind of pet?
Yes, actually. Teach, the dog, is very important to the story. In some ways, it’s as much his story as it is the boy’s. He’s the boy’s best friend and confident. Protector and constant companion. And I feel like the boy-and-his-dog story is a time-honored tradition, especially in coming-of-age stories. Plus, I’m a dog person. They’re a big part of my life so it’s natural they’d come out in my writing. This story is dedicated to my dog Ishy who died while I was writing this.
Similarly, is there a reason why the kid is 11 as opposed to 6 or 16? Or why this isn’t about an adult of, say, 26 or 56?
I do believe that we can come of age at different times, at least mentally and emotionally. Coming of age is all about transformation, about finding out the truths that we were blind to previously. But traditionally, coming-of-age stories happen around this time: 11, 12, or 13. And for this story in particular because things happen for the boy when puberty hits. Bodies change, and for him, some things waken.
More importantly, is there a significance to the kid not having a name in any of the press materials, or what you’ve written about it on your website?
Yes. He’s not named in the book. For most of the book, he’s just the boy. No one is named but the dog because the boy names the dog. I’m pretty sure it’s a sin of some sort not to name a dog, not to name anything you love that doesn’t already have a name. But this is a fable of sorts, and as such, they do not have names.
Now, those same materials cite fellow author Paul Tremblay as saying Wild Spaces is an “eldritch coming-of-age-story.” But aside from cosmic horror, are there any other genres at work in this story?
I believe so, yes. There are elements of dark fantasy, and some might say that there are literary elements as well. While I hope this story scares people, I also hope that’s not all it does. I want it to ignite their imagination and reawaken the desire for dream. There’s a sense of adventure, I think, with his explorations and his fascination with pirates. The field trips he takes with his father. And then you have the more fantastical elements that aren’t necessarily horror.
The literary elements exist in the focus on the characters and their lives. There are monsters in this story for sure, but many of the monstrous elements are things that people might recognize in the lives around us, or in our own.
You said you want this story to scare people. How scary is Wild Spaces? I know that’s subjective, that what you find unsettling might not unsettle me, but is Wild Spaces freaky, is it weird and foreboding…?
Oh, this is a hard one to answer. I’ve been told that it’s very tense, that it’s very foreboding. Ellen, my editor, said that she had to keep putting it down because she knew bad things were coming so I think it’s quite nerve-wracking. There’s weirdness for sure, it is a monster story, but I think the thing that makes it really scary is that much of what happens is real. I’m writing about the disintegration of a family, a good family, a family that works. That should be scary. Anyone who has dealt with toxic family, or toxic people in general, will recognize what’s happening.
Wild Spaces is your first book, though you’ve had stories in such anthologies as Noir At The Bar: Vol. Two and The Best American Mystery Stories, 2017. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Wild Spaces but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, for sure. I’ve already mentioned Micaela Morrisette and her story The Familiars, but there’s also Stephen Graham Jones, just in general. I also deeply love his novel Mongrels. Everyone should read that. It’s top-notch coming-of-age horror. There’s also A.C. Wise’s short story “Harvest Song, Gathering Song.” I read that and I just remember thinking, I have to up my monster game. Kelly Robson’s A Human Stain is a masterpiece of subtext and characterization. If you want to read something to get a good understanding of what you put on the page and what you leave off, that’s the story. And then, in general because they inspire me and I love these stories so much, “Los Angeles” by Emma Cline and “Boys Go To Jupiter” by Danielle Evans. But if you get me talking about stories, we’ll be here all day.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Because it’s giving me some real Stranger Things vibes.
Oh, that’s interesting. I do love Stranger Things. I didn’t set out with it in mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the atmosphere and that coming-of-age vibe is also in Wild Spaces.
I do love movies, and to a certain extent, TV, but I think this particular piece was inspired more by novels and short stories, and real sea creatures. In general, I would count my movie and TV inspirations as The X-Files, Stranger Things, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus, Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and the work of Val Lewton. Among others. I mean, Stephen King’s Children Of The Corn was the first horror movie I ever watched, and it’s pretty well established in my horror DNA.
You have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Did that have any influence on Wild Spaces? Or was it more that you found yourself contradicting things you learned but did so anyway for the sake of the story?
I hated the idea of practicing psychology as a profession and ended up leaving my doctoral program because I couldn’t fathom being a practicing psychologist. I have a curiosity about people. I want to understand them, but I don’t want to treat them. Still, psychology has a huge impact on everything I write. I like to think I have a good amount of empathy that helps me get into the head of my characters, but I’m also lucky to have this additional understanding afforded to me by my degree. Especially with Wild Spaces when we think about families as systems and how those systems work when it comes to trauma and avoidance. I certainly don’t agree with every single psychological theory, I don’t know anyone who does, but it’s extremely useful to me as a writer.
Now, Wild Spaces sounds like it’s a stand-alone story. But since you never know, I’ll ask: Is it?
It is. I know what happens next. I played around with the idea of writing a follow-up. There’s this whole mythology in my head, but I think it’s better in this instance for the reader to fill in. I could foresee writing something else in this universe, but not with these particular characters.
Currently, I’m at work on a novel that’s a mix of ghost story and neo-noir that deals with guilt, grief, and sexuality.
Hollywood loves scary movies, especially when kids are involved. Do you think Wild Spaces could work as a movie?
I mean, I think it’s many a writer’s dream to see their work translated into film or TV. I’m no different. I think it could. I think there’s good tension, good characterization, and it’s full of strong visuals that could translate well to the screen, and while it treads over the familiar territory surrounding coming-of-age, it does it in a way that is unique. I also think that it could have broad appeal in that it’s dealing with very real issues. But then, I’m biased.
And if someone decided to make a Wild Spaces movie, who would you want them to cast as the kid, his parents, and his grandfather?
This is a hard one. I’m more readily able to name a director rather than actors, and I’m not up on child actors at all, but if we stick with the Stranger Things theme then, like a young Gaten Matarazzo. For the mother Gal Gadot [Wonder Woman] or Natalie Portman [Thor: Love & Thunder] immediately come to mind. [Star Trek‘s] Chris Pine for the dad or Tom Hiddleston [Loki]. The grandfather is a John Malkovich [Being John Malkovich], [Breaking Bad‘s] Dean Norris type, or maybe a buffed up Sir Ben Kingsley [Gandhi] or David Harbour [Stranger Things]. I tend to think in types rather than in actors when writing because I feel like if I’m thinking of an actor it’s going to get in the way of the character. Now, if we want to talk directors, I’m a huge fan of Tarsem Singh [The Cell] and Taika Waititi [Jojo Rabbit].
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Wild Spaces?
I came to this story with a very specific idea. What’s on the page is important, but perhaps the most important thing — the point of the story — is what’s not on the page, and why it’s not on the page. This story came to mean a lot to me. I hope it does to its readers as well.
Finally, if someone enjoys Wild Spaces, what horror novella of someone else’s would you recommend they check out and why that one?
The Ballad Of Black Tom by Victor LaValle has such a great sense of time and place, and it is absolutely horrific. I’m pretty sure I parked in a parking garage once that was straight out of the basement scene in that one.
Mapping The Interior by Stephen Graham Jones. This is also a coming-of-age novella and it will punch you in the gut.
The Murders Of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson. This is such a wild ride.
Come Closer by Sara Gran. It’s truly chilling.
Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum. One word: no. I mean, do read, but watch out for the way it’ll make your skin crawl.