Tony Jones Interviews Duncan Ralston:
Dare you enter Ghostland?
We are delighted to welcome the versatile Canadian horror author, Duncan Ralston, to Ink Heist today whose latest novel Ghostland has just been released upon the world. Since he arrived on the scene in 2014 Duncan has delighted us with a wide range of short stories, novellas and novels which include Woom, The Method and Video Nasties. This new work is a quirky change of direction in which he abandons the extreme aspects of his fiction and gives us a polished, fast-paced and highly entertaining page-turning horror novel with teenage main characters. Ink Heist recently reviewed Ghostland of which the link is at the end of this feature, and we caught up with Duncan to find out more this the ideas around great new novel.
INK HEIST: You obviously had a lot of fun writing Ghostland Duncan, it seemed quite cinematic in its approach, were there big screen influences as well as literary?
DUNCAN: Thanks, Tony. Glad that showed in the writing. The Jurassic Park series was a huge influence, particularly the latest iteration and the books. I spent a whole summer reading Crichton in order to write more convincing pseudoscientific technobabble, in an interesting, organic way. There was a lot of background stuff that went into “building” the park, from things as seemingly simple as positioning the exhibits to figuring out how they would be able to take apart massive structures like insane asylums and prisons and reconstruct them in a theme park, while still retaining the ghosts that haunt them.
Other influences were Ghostbusters (naturally) and 13 Ghosts, more so the remake than William Castle’s original. The DVD of 13 Ghosts was chock-full of special features, and one particular featurette stuck with me for a long time: the stories about all the ghosts featuring the movie. In the film itself, there isn’t a lot of info about any of the ghosts—they’re just there to scare the crap out of the characters, and the viewer. That’s why I included the Ghost Index in the back of the book (footnotes in the e-book).
I also drew a lot of inspiration from some of my favourite video games, the Silent Hill franchise, Alan Wake, The Last of Us and The Evil Within. With many games you can dig deeper into what’s going on around you or you can choose to skip through it and just enjoy the ride. I always prefer a more immersive experience, particularly in a survival horror game. I felt like this idea fit with Ghostland, since the main characters are (or were, in Lilian’s case) big gamers—and it’s essentially a survival horror novel.
INK HEIST: It has several very cool ghosts, give us a few clues how you dreamed them up? What was your favourite?
DUNCAN: I tried to think about the haunted places you’d normally read about or see in movies and what sorts of ghosts would haunt them, then go from there. What scares me the most and what could be the most fun to mess around with. Clowns were the obvious choice, but I nixed them in an early draft. Too much clown stuff these days just doesn’t do anything new with the trope (although I love to be surprised when it does!), and I didn’t want to add to that.
There’s a ton of ghosts in this book—so many that a reader suggested it should be subtitled 101 Ghosts. There’s one called “the Swarm” which I like a lot—it appears as a sort of dark, amorphous shape with multiple tormented faces that seemingly attacks at random. And there’s the Behemoth, who is big and menacing but has a tragic backstory. But my favourite ghost is probably Morton Welles, a mental patient from the 1900s who was psychic driven by his psychiatrist to become a sort of sleepwalking murderer called the “Bright Falls Zombie,” like the old German expressionist movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
INK HEIST: Compared to some of your other stuff it is quite mild on the violence side, are you looking to branch out to a wider more mainstream audience?
DUNCAN: I wanted to write a book that would appeal to me as an adult and be something I would have enjoyed reading when I was younger. Compared to my extreme horror stuff, Woom, for instance, it’s definitely lighter on violence. There is a fair amount that happens behind the scenes or is only alluded to. I felt like if it would be easy to overkill, so to speak, on the violence in a story like this.
INK HEIST: Do you think it is still too violent for the YA age group? That audience love gadgets and computers and there is lots of techy stuff in this novel, it might work…
DUNCAN: I wouldn’t recommend it for kids. But for the kind of kid I was, sure! Go nuts, kiddo.
INK HEIST: Could there be an extreme X-rated version hiding in the dark recesses of your laptop? Especially altered for the likes of Matt Shaw perhaps…
DUNCAN: Ha! Well, I did tone it down a tad for the benefit of literary agents. But I never intended it to be an “extreme horror” novel. And I feel like the toning also tightened a story that was a bit meandering at times into a leaner, faster-paced horror thriller.
INK HEIST: Tell us a little bit more about the gimmicks (for want of a better word) you’ve got going down with this new book? It sounds like fun, we need to bring back the days of William Castle, that dude would have loved this book!
DUNCAN: One thing I did was create a website (www.ghostlandpark.com) which is supposed to have been created by a character who was supposed to be at Ghostland but missed out due to fortunate accident. It investigates what happened during the events of the book—in the “real-world” Ghostland—and what happened to survivors and residents of the town. Another was a fun little “viral” marketing thing where I pretended that Rex Garrote, the novel’s antagonist, was a real cult horror author who had died in 1999. I did a handful of blog posts where I pretended I’d read his book when I was a kid but couldn’t find any evidence of it having existed. It got a lot of attention and it was difficult to tell who was fooled and who wasn’t, which was part of the fun for me. I kind of felt like when I was a kid doing up the house for Halloween – pulling the strings behind the curtain, launching the spider into the air for a good scare, raising the lid on the coffin with the vampire inside, etc.
INK HEIST: You’ve indicated that Ghostland might be expanded in a series? Could you tell us a little bit more? It has definite potential for more….
DUNCAN: I feel like Ghostland is a standalone book in the way that Star Wars or The Matrix are standalone. We didn’t need to see what happened after Neo shot up into the sky like Superman. We didn’t need to know what happened after Luke, Leia and Han got their medals for blowing up the Death Star. It’s assumed that these worlds continue but for us viewers, they’re over. They’re done. But there was definitely an urge to see more. To know more about that world. That’s how I felt after writing Ghostland. I wanted to dive deeper. That’s why I made the ghost index at the end of the book (with helpful footnotes). It’s also why I made the Ghostland Restoration Project website. I had a lot of fun playing in that universe, and I would love to dive in again. I hope readers will come back from reading Ghostland with that same feeling.
INK HEIST: I’m aware you’ve been working on Ghostland for quite a while and it has gone through a lot of edits and has been shortened in length; has this process been more torturous that with your other long-format fiction?
DUNCAN: It’s been a bit more work than my other books, but not torturous. Most of the process has been a lot of fun. I threw away an entire draft, which is something I haven’t done in years. Each book comes with its own unique set of issues. For this one I was tasked with figuring out how a whole bunch of technology that doesn’t exist would work, while keeping it simple enough for someone like me to understand.
INK HEIST: What do you think is the best entry point for any uninitiated readers who might not have read your stuff before? (please don’t say Woom!)
DUNCAN: Can I say Ghostland? No? Okay, then probably Video Nasties, my second horror collection. The stories in there run the gamut, and it’s a fairly long book. If you can’t find something in there you’ll like, then my writing may not be for you.
INK HEIST: You’ve written many very good short stories, where is a good place to start for those who don’t know your work?
DUNCAN: Thank you. Fortunately, I’ve got a bunch of free short stories you can download as a thank you for joining my website (www.duncanralston.com). These include “The Moving House,” a prequel short story to Ghostland, and Where the Monsters Live, a novella about a man who goes undercover in a sex offender colony in Miami – a fictionalized version of the real-life “Bookville” – to hunt his daughter’s abuser.
INK HEIST: I’ve read you’ve been entering various screen-writing competitions, how has it been going for you?
DUNCAN: Haven’t done one in some time now and I think I’m going to hold off on that for a bit. It’s a nice little ego boost when you place (and a nice cash prize when you win), but I haven’t found it’s benefited me. You get a few nibbles from producers, what you’ve writing isn’t quite right for them but maybe something else, then you never hear from them again. I get much more fulfilment out of writing longform fiction and short stories anyway, so I think I’m going to focus on that for a while. At least until someone is willing to pay me to write a script.
INK HEIST: What sort of fiction are you currently reading? Recommend us some good stuff.
DUNCAN: Just recently read Gary Raisor’s Stoker-nominated Less Then Human. Before that was Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost, a quick sci-fi read. All of these are five-star reads, as far as I’m concerned. Caroline Kepnes’s You was also stellar, as well. I’m currently reading some recent pretty great indie stuff.
INK HEIST: Which author (living or dead) would you most like to see reading Woom on a bus?
DUNCAN: Not that he’s likely to be taking the bus, but I’d bet Chuck Palahniuk would get a kick out of Woom. It was inspired by his early writing as well as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.
INK HEIST: If you could have a genuinely amazing quote from any horror author to adorn the front of Ghostland who would it be from and what would it (roughly) say?
DUNCAN: “Holy f*cking sh*t!” – R.L. Stein
INK HEIST: Now that Ghostland has been unleashed on the world what’s next for you?
DUNCAN: I’m nearing the end of a novel called The Midwives, about demons in a small town and a true crime writer who returns home to stay with his mother when one of his subjects escapes a psychiatric prison, seeking revenge. After that I’ve got a few novella ideas I’ve been tinkering with, including a spiritual sequel to Woom and a sequel to the titular novella from Video Nasties, which will probably end up being the centrepiece of another collection. I’m also working on a collaboration with Chad Clark, whose book on Stephen King, Tracing the Trails, I edited last year. After that, who knows? There’s always another story itching to come out.
INK HEIST: It has been an absolute pleasure having you on the site. I really enjoyed Ghostland and hope it brings you the success it deserves and some excitement within genre circles. Those works in progress sound fascinating and we look forward to hearing more about them further down the line.
Ink Heist recently reviewed the excellent Ghostland, click here to read the full review.