Blog

Review of The Navajo Nightmare by Steve Stred & David Sodergren

I’ve always loved a good Western. I think it’s partly because the Western genre, for me, is very closely aligned with Epic Fantasy. Instead of swords, our heroes wield glinting silver revolvers capable of magically dealing death at impossible distances. Instead of taverns, there are saloons. Instead of warring fantastical kingdoms, we find the American Civil War. One thread that remains current through both genres relatively unchanged is the obsession with and value of gold. In addition, the great wastelands of the America Wild West fittingly conjure the mystical and fantastical landscapes sword and sorcery heroes often have to overcome on their quest. And speaking of quests, Westerns are rife with them, whether it’s a quest for revenge, as in High Plains Drifter (one of the most underrated films of all time), for some kind of holy grail, as in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or redemption, as in 3:10 To Yuma. In short, I think Westerns and Fantasies are two sides of the same coin, which is why I love them both. 

This intersection of Fantasy and Western is beautifully embodied in The Navajo Nightmare, a short novel by David Sodergren and Steve Stred. There is so much to say about this epic collaboration it is hard to know where to begin. 

Firstly, this book is divided into two halves, the first, “BEFORE”, written by David Sodergren, and the second, “AFTER”, by Steve Stred. I came to this book as a huge, huge fan of Steve Stred. He is not only an amazing author, but one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. However, I was unfamiliar with David Sodergren’s work, and so was intrigued to experience his writing for the first time. His prose blew me away. What could have been a hackneyed account of a dangerous gunslinger losing everything he holds dear, a trope we have seen before, instead became an earth-shaking story of loss, written with passion and conviction. Sodergren’s prose is elegant, and full of quotable lines from the very first, including the killer opening, “As is so often the way with truly blasphemous acts, it all started on a Sunday.” 

Within a few short chapters, Sodergren made me completely emotionally invested in Charles Andersson and his wife, Mary. The two have a son, little Jack, and they live in a yet-to-be-built house just outside of Packer’s Mill. Both husband and wife have demons in their past they’re trying to leave behind, and as we see in both the first and second parts of the book, this is a through-line for the entire story. To what extent can we escape the shadows we think we leave behind us? To what extent can we change? 

Within an equally brief space, Sodergren rips your heart out in a scene that is at once startlingly brutal and callous, yet also restrained, turning the camera away from the worst, which leaves the reader space to feel the horror and pathos of what unfolds. 

Following this calamity, Charles Andersson becomes a changed man, but Sodergren neatly sidesteps the cliché of him simply becoming hungry for vengeance above all else. What’s interesting are the deeper and more destabilising character changes that come over him. He moves from an entirely cool and level-headed man, who never lets emotions cloud his judgement, to one who is irrational, lost in the mists of his own feelings, distracted. It’s this excellent character work that sets The Navajo Nightmare up for greatness. The character work continues as the Nightmare who was once Charles Andersson begins to lose his grip on who he is / was, and reality, until we reach a hair-raisingly climactic shootout worthy of being put to film, or etched onto my brain for all time. 

The second half of the novel is no less potent. Though the two writers achieve a surprising synergy between their two styles, one can feel the difference when Steve Stred takes over. It’s not that one style is better than the other, merely that with Stred’s half of the story we feel a tonal shift. The title of “AFTER” is appropriate, because this is a world post-Nightmare, a cynical world, perhaps, in which everyone lives with the expectation that evil will come knocking eventually. It’s also a shift into that Epic Fantasy mode I described earlier. Sodergren’s part is High Plains Drifter, a mystical horror-thriller shrouded in trauma and the power of the past. Stred’s is Bone Tomahawk: a nightmare mission into a heart of darkness. 

In part 2, Tanner, a gunslinger who seems to have some kind of connection to The Nightmare, is asked to assemble a team by the feisty Linda St. James to track down and end the Nightmare once and for all. This “fellowship” of deadly fighters is a brilliant contrast to the single focus of the preceding part of the novel. There’s Hank, an ex-slave of gargantuan proportions and strength; Cutting Teeth, a Native American skinwalker; Carter, Tanner’s lackey, a young boy with a weird connection to his horse; and Linda and Tanner themselves. The assembly of the team certainly has the feeling of an old-school fantasy novel, or a legendary B-movie like Krull, and things only get better as the group sets off on a perilous journey towards Packer’s Mill.

It soon becomes clear that the team is being haunted by something. They’re tracking down a killer, but in turn being stalked. Each person believes that it is a demon from their own past. Stred cleverly uses this as a mechanism to get each person in the group to narrate their own harrowing backstory. Not only does this enrich the characters, but it also serves as a powerful way to explore the themes of The Navajo Nightmare more deeply. Each person is dealing with a trauma, and each person had committed sins they now have to confront. Each person is themselves a Nightmare, a creation of the bad (and good) choices in their past. 

For those who have read other books by Steve Stred, such as The Stranger, it’s no spoiler to say that one by one each person in the group is picked off. As they get nearer their destination, the truth of what needs to happen to defeat The Nightmare is unveiled. What I loved here is that Stred has no problem giving seeming “B-characters” their moment. This makes his narratives unpredictable and sinuous, surprising just as often as they deliver the gory goods we so want. The conclusion is satisfying and oddly sweet despite how harrowing what came before it was.

The Navajo Nightmare is a must-read for those who love westerns, who love horror, and who love quests into the darkness. This one will stay with me for a long time. 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA


I hope you enjoyed this review and want to read more, you can sign up to the Mindflayer’s Patreon (for only £3 p/m) where I release one article like this every month, as well as other exclusive content. Join other cultists and thralls on the journey to discovering the secrets of great writing! 

Become a Patron!
Blog

CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

***

Thank you for reading this blog! If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to The Mind-Palace, a mailing list that has further writing advice, free fiction, and more.

If you’re interested in developing your fiction, you can also sign up to The Mindflayer’s Epic Bootcamp, an online course packed with exercises, creator interviews, and insight onto how to make your stories epic.

You can also check out Monaghan & The Mindflayer, a podcast for nerds and storytellers that explores everything from Warhammer lore to conspiracy theories. Season 2 has just dropped.

 

Blog

Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.

I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.

This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.

We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.

You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…

Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.

Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?

In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.