Ever since I read ‘How to Love a Necromancer’ (read here) years ago I have been obsessed with Jess Hyslop’s short fiction. And now we have an awesome novella to read! Do yourself a favour and get a copy of Miasma now!
What does the term ‘new weird’ mean to you? Were you deliberately invoking this trend?
Hm, good question! For me, ‘new weird’ refers to speculative fiction that delves into the strange and the uncanny, often mixing elements that are more common in horror into fantastical settings. I know it’s common to cite China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer as the poster-boys of this subgenre, but I do think that’s accurate, if perhaps a little outdated now. I’m sure there are many other notable writers of the new weird that I should be referencing here.
Was I deliberately invoking it? Um. Semi-deliberately, I guess? I certainly wanted the setting of Miasma to feel unsettling and distinct, and I’m very keen on taking stereotypical fantasy tropes (in this case, knights and mages) and twisting them somehow in order to subvert expectations and present them in a different light. This can give you interesting avenues to explore those Big Themes common in fantasy – ideas of honour and nobility, power and responsibility, good and evil, etc – and encourage readers to question their assumptions.
Why did you want to write a story where the reader as well as the protagonist must try to decipher what is true and what isn’t? How did using a child’s perspective help or hinder this process?
Personally, I love books that keep me guessing as a reader. In fantasy especially, I’m drawn to books that not only have moments of character-focussed revelation (so-and-so is actually a traitor, etc!) but those which also have moments of big revelation regarding the society or world itself. So I suppose that’s something I like to try and do in my own fiction. It’s harder to do this in a novella than in a novel, I feel, as the shorter length makes it more difficult to build that epic scope without it seeming forced or overwhelming. But that’s where having a child protagonist comes in! Nereus is ten years old. He’s certainly no fool, but he obviously has only a partial understanding of the things going on around him. Having him as a first-person narrator meant that I was able to reveal certain truths to the reader only at the same rate as Nereus learns about them, and not artificially hold things back just for the sake of tension.
I would be lying, though, if I said I thought about all this deliberately going in – it happened more instinctively than that. Nereus just seemed like the right narrator for this story at the time, for other reasons as well.
How do you keep a dark narrative from becoming too bleak? Was there a tipping point you came across in the writing of the novella?
It’s funny, but I don’t consider Miasma to be particularly dark overall. The world it presents is certainly no picnic, and there’s a lot of conflict going on at different levels, but at its core it’s about a young boy and his family coming together to resist an oppressive authority – which I personally think is very hopeful. Perhaps that’s the answer to your question: you can set a story in as dark a world as you like, but it’s what lies in the hearts of your characters that either sends it into bleak, grimdark territory (which is a perfectly valid choice) or allows it to swerve into something less despairing.
The novella as a form has been having a moment – for quite some time now. Why is it such an enduringly popular format in the modern era?
It certainly has, and I really love that. Novellas are such a satisfying length, both to write and to read. They’re long enough to allow you to really get stuck into the characters and the world, but short enough that they’re not as big a time commitment as reading or writing a novel. I think the latter point is key to their popularity. People are busy, you know? We all have so much stuff going on. I still love novels, obviously, as do many people, but when you’ve been going through a hard patch and are simply exhausted, the thought of picking up a tome of a novel can sometimes feel daunting. A nice, slim novella, though…
Why should readers pick up a copy of Miasma? Pitch us your book!
Miasma is the story of Nereus Vestryn, a ten-year-old boy who lives with his mother at the edge of a toxic, magical swamp. He’s grown up hearing tales of how dangerous the swamp is: how, if you venture inside, its miasma will either kill you or transform you into a feral ‘malignant’. So when he finds his mother crawling sickened from the swamp one morning, he has no choice but to summon a mage to help her. But mages are feared figures, themselves distorted by a previous exposure to the miasma, and her arrival has greater repercussions than Nereus bargained for. As long-held family secrets are uncovered and an unexpected threat arrives on the doorstep, Nereus must ask himself: what really makes a monster?
And that doesn’t do it for you, then… do you like the sound of weird toxic swamp magic? Mysterious, masked mages? Knights riding reptiles? Coming-of-age stories that are also resistance-against-oppression stories? Then you might like: Miasma! By me!
Jess Hyslop is a British writer of fantasy, fabulism, and science fiction. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Interzone, Black Static, and Cossmass Infinities and her novella Miasma is out now from Luna Press. Jess can be found online at www.jesshyslop.com. Offline, she resides in Oxford with a number of slowly decaying houseplants.