Can you tell us a little bit about the background of this story and how you came to write it?
Sure. I wrote an early draft of this story five or six years ago. But it wasn’t working—or I couldn’t figure out what it was about—so I abandoned it, and then forgot about it. When I rediscovered it, enough time had passed that the story felt new to me. I liked its energy and its dark humor, so I came back to it and finally finished it.
I don’t remember exactly what sparked the story to begin with, but at the time, I was writing a lot of stories with amoral protagonists, or set in amoral universes, and “On Murder Island” was a part of that group. I had a story in Portland Review and one in Cimarron Review that overlap with this one in a number of ways—they all center on characters who might be described as sadistic hedonists, people who lack the capacity for empathy or shame. And I had another story, originally in Barrelhouse and later reprinted in Brave New Worlds, built around a character—a violent person, but not a sadist or hedonist—who’s made a kind of life-project of numbing himself to the suffering of others.
When I returned to “On Murder Island” after that long break, I noticed some things that hadn’t occurred to me consciously the first time I’d worked on the story. One big one is the way that the story seems inspired by video games. “The Mainland” is blurry; you don’t feel too confident that there’s actually a civilization out there, or that anything at all exists apart from the island. And Murder Island itself is implausible, full of features that don’t make sense in combination. Peter and Toby are clearly missing something—they don’t feel fully human—and their victims resemble non-player-characters from a 1990s computer game. (The Weatherman, for instance, doesn’t run away when Toby and Peter try to kill him. The Parachutist drifts into the story—from offscreen, you might say—at just the right moment, as if to prompt the idle player-characters into action.)
Toby has “memories,” but you don’t get the impression that he really has a past, or that anything he does is psychologically motivated. The main thing he wants is to avoid boredom, and the surest way out of boredom is through violence.
The story reads, at times, like something for children, but it’s unwholesome even apart from its violence—and that confusion of tone and subject matter seems video-gamey to me. The strange pairing of Toby and Peter mirrors the unlikely friendships you might find in the world of an online shooter—a sealed-off playground, very conspicuously without girls and women, where people like Toby and Peter could conceivably meet and become partners. And the island—like certain online spaces (game spaces, but also comment boards like the ones on Youtube)—seems like a place where angry thirteen-year-old boys create all of the social and moral norms. So the story as a whole is like a weird dream someone might have after playing Grand Theft Auto while listening to an audiobook of Peter Pan on loop for twenty hours.
When I read “On Murder Island,” I found myself very curious about what’s going on in the world outside Murder Island. Toby doesn’t seem like the most reliable narrator ever (nor possibly the best informed). How much of what he believes about the Mainland (or the island, for that matter) is true?
Ha—right: Toby’s not just uninformed and unreliable; he’s also incurious. He never ponders any of the mysteries the reader instantly notices, and he seems incapable of learning, reflecting, or imagining the future—even the very near future. He kills his best friend, and then he’s disappointed that he doesn’t have someone to play with.
Often when a story has a narrator whose grasp on reality is as shaky as Toby’s, it ends up heavily ironic; the reader perceives a lot of what the narrator misses, and the story ends up being about the narrator’s self-delusion. It congratulates the reader for being smarter and more sensitive than the narrator. In this case, though, Toby’s so oblivious that we can’t see around him well enough to make independent judgments about what’s happening.
On the question of what’s really happening on and beyond the island, though, I’d rather not say much more. I’d be more interested in hearing readers tell me what they think the island and the mainland are.
I like creepy stories as much as the next person, but I really enjoy the way that “On Murder Island” blends a certain amount of humor or absurdity with a horrifying situation—it’s an uncommon approach in the genre. Why do you think that is?
Hmm . . . I don’t know! I think that horror and comedy are two of the toughest things to pull off in fiction. But I should maybe make a distinction between “creepy” and “clever” on the one hand, and “scary” and “funny” on the other. It’s not that hard to be creepy or clever—that just has to do with mood, tone, and style, and other things that a competent writer can control. But actually frightening a reader, or making the reader laugh out loud, is hard. A story has to be a little bit inspired to pull that off, and it has to do something surprising.
There are plenty of “horror stories” and “comedic novels” that I love in spite of the fact that they’re never actually scary or funny. It’s pretty rare for me to encounter something like The Shining, which is actually capable of frightening me, or Lucky Jim, which is so funny it made me cry the first time I read it. (The hangover scene!) So trying to be genuinely scary and funny in the same story almost seems like an unreasonable goal to set for yourself. (Movies seem to have an easier time with this. Drag Me to Hell, for instance, is one of the funniest and scariest movies of the last few years.)
My guess is that “On Murder Island” probably won’t scare people all that much. The situation and the characters are just too strange . . . and the whimsicality of Toby and Peter undercuts their menace; there’s nobody here for a reader to fear, or fear for. I was more interested, with this one, in making the reader laugh uncomfortably.
What are you working on now?
A couple of long stories—and issues two and three of Unstuck, the literary journal that I edit.