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Entering the Devil's Cradle, an Interview with S.L. Edwards

Justin A. Burnett: Is there anything you'd like readers to know before they dive into In the Devil's Cradle? What should they prepare themselves for, or should they prepare at all?

S. L. Edwards: The novel is inspired by many different real-world cases. By all of the political science I've read in my career. I would advise readers to expect some very ugly moments.

And this isn't to say "gory" moments. I think when readers hear "ugly moments" they anticipate either gore or sexual violence. To be fair, there is gore. But it's couched in something which is more disturbing to me than say, the Saw franchise.

The reality of situations like the one faced by the Esquivals in the novel is that national collapses, moments of political rupture, provide an incentive structure for “normal people” to take up arms against their neighbors and for a more violent criminal class to pursue their absolute worst impulses. There's a piece by Dr. John Mueller called "The Banality of Ethnic War." In it, Mueller details how political elites organized bands of hardened criminals to carry out violent attacks, sometimes supplying them with alcohol and drugs. The result were cases of truly shocking excess.

So there are some very shocking moments, in my opinion, in the novel. But it's nothing that doesn't happen in reality.

Burnett: I’m already reminded by what I call instances of “world shattering” in Shakespeare, where turmoil in the state is reflected in a rift in the mundane to make way for the monstrous. When the state is ruptured, the dead walk, the sun darkens, and madness reigns, as we see in Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth. In a way, these repercussions of “political rupture” and their counterparts in Greek tragedy very much seem like horror’s incipient moments.

Are there any advantages to addressing state collapse in terms of horror rather than, say, historical fiction?

Edwards: This may sound very strange, but I actually think it can make the horror of state collapse more "real." There's a lot of distance one can put between themselves and a historical or real-world case. There's the distance of time, and the comfort that comes with isolating a phenomena to one particular historical episode; and then there's physical distance.

Even when reading academic accounts of violence, there's this way of depersonalizing it. Or kind of confining the phenomena to a series of grim statistics.

I think historical fiction does this well, but most of the heaviest hitting stuff comes from people who lived through it. And I'm not sure that it's an ethical practice to try and ape the style of survivors. I don't think it is, at all.

Plus there is a practical concern too. Historical fiction, if done well, really requires a dedication to research to construct a setting. The advantage of a country like Antioch is that I could take all of these cases I knew, places I had been, and make an amalgam. It was a place where I could process my own feelings of horror about all the things I'd research without risking taking someone else's story.

Burnett: Part of maintaining the horror of the situation is avoiding the notion of a strict locale (in history, in geography) since specific atrocities—the Dirty War in Argentina, for example—are never purely local. A whole network of powers, invisibilities, and complicities are implicated in state terror. Before we return to Antioch, I wanted to ask if the element of the supernatural in your novel relates in any way to the shadowy and hidden elements of the “network” (a spider’s web) mentioned above? In short, what do ghosts have to do with the state?

Edwards: Oh absolutely! There's a whole slew of Antioch stories that take place after the events of In the Devil's Cradle that have to do with forced disappearances and other atrocities. And the sort of "double death," the actual death of a person and the death of that person's existence figure largely into those stories. The Argentine military carried out something particularly atrocious. A politicide carried out in parking garages, military academies, places not far removed from urban centers and in one case down the street from an Olympic Stadium.

In Antioch the ghosts are tied to the violent births of the nation. And when you look at the founding myths, and the founding realities of many nation states, you see that most of them are tied to violence. We, the citizens of our respective nations, often cast this violence as heroic. We glorify it. But the violent births of nations always, always have casualties. There are always mass graves beneath those cradles. And the ghosts, those are the things that linger.

Burnett: Cradles among graves, births so monstrous they are desperately covered over with myths, and a nation’s devouring of its own children… to me, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son looms over this terrible circularity.

While your characters aren’t exclusively children, childhood is undoubtedly a thematic centerpiece in the novel. Why childhood? Is it an escape from the terrible things unfolding in the narrative? An emblem of fragility, or even, counterintuitively, strength?

Edwards: There was a French Essayist by the name of Jacques Mallet du Pan who once remarked that "The Revolution devours its children."

Now, du Pan was an ally of the monarchy and those words have to be contextualized, but I'm not unconvinced that what he said was inaccurate. You had Robespierre the anti-monarchist, the radical, and as soon as the royals were dead the knives turned inward. "The Great Terror." That's the reality of the situation. As soon as the revolution ends, the counter revolution begins.

As for why children: early in my notes I knew I wanted to tell a novel about a family. And kids make up the bulk of family units, so it made a lot of sense.

But then, we were all kids once, right? There's a lot of autobiography in the four Esquival children. Christopher was an awkward, angry and bitter teenager like I was. Edward is a good kid but struggling with identifying his place in the family as the second son. He's smart, but he's lonely and doesn't understand why. It's heartbreaking, to me, to sort of recognize myself in him more than any other character in the novel. Victoria is frightened, like most of us were as kids. And Torie is a witness to it all. She's too young to understand, but she understands enough.

More than strength or fragility, childhood and its various stages are times of rapid, tumultuous, sometimes even uneven change. It's a moment that overlaps a lot with something like a revolution, or a national collapse, or this rupture of the status quo. Thematically, it makes a lot of sense to include these children in the story of what is at its core of an awful, carnivorous moment. They're changing with the nation.

Burnett: What may be invisible to the readers due to the seamless development of the narrative and the depth of characterization is the fact that this was a difficult novel for you to write. Do you want to talk about that struggle? What outer stressors and anxieties did you channel into this work, and did the novel ever offer something in return: catharsis, a release, some sort of resolution?

Edwards: I think the time period when I was writing the novel was the beginning of what were, quite frankly, the worst years of my life. Of a lot of our lives.

Drafting began in March 2020, though I had started taking notes the summer before. And though it's difficult to think about on the other side of the pandemic (it's a luxury we are in fact, on the other side in the United States) reading the novel now recalls some very vivid memories. There were the refrigerator trucks mobilized as morgues. The national guard was deployed to handle dead bodies not only in major population centers like LA or New York, but even El Paso!

I don't think I'll ever forget those trucks. And it's very odd to me that it seems like so many people already have. That we experienced this horrible, traumatic moment that in too many parts of the world is still unfolding. And we've just gotten over it.

There was a lot of being isolated in the novel. Certainly, an uncertainty. I had no idea what the future held. I only knew that this would be my last chance to write a novel. I did, but I won't sit here and say it was easy, no. No. And anyone who says it is might be lying to you.

To this day I'm not sure if this is a story that offered a catharsis or a resolution. It was certainly a process where I could take all the things that I was feeling, what I knew and what was scary to me, and put them somewhere that wasn't exclusively in my own head. So they wouldn't weigh on me. But yes, there were nightmares, I think. I had actual nightmares when writing the book. And I'm not saying that as some "OOOH, the novel is so intense it scared its own author bullshit." It was stressful, scary, awful.

If there was a resolution to be had, it was when I abandoned my outline and went forward with the guiding question of "If I were reading this, what would I want to read next?" This made a lot of changes to the flow of the novel, I'd say for the better. But, by the same token, I think that same principle made my reactions far more intense.

If there was another release, it was in writing the ending. I cannot give that away, but I think concluding any story gives the teller a profound sense of relief. It wasn't any different for me.

Burnett: What is Antioch? And why is it named “Antioch,” after the Hellenistic city?

Edwards: I don't want to give away the novel, but I write a bit about this in the afterword! So I'll answer the question by sort of setting the stage for readers:

Antioch is a very precarious nation-state. By the time the novel begins, it has been independent for roughly 120 years. Its last war of independence was against the British, but it was also a Spanish colony at an earlier point of its history. It experienced waves of other immigrant populations from Europe too, meaning that several European languages are spoken in the country.

But at the outset of the story, Antioch is going through a tailspin. Its economy is falling, partisan tensions are high, and there are very clear warning signs that something bad is about to happen. There is a Marxist movement (I believe "Maoist" might be more accurate, to be honest) in the countryside which has combined revolution theology with this evangelical drive for apocalyptic violence. This idea that heaven on earth will only be established if the chosen wade through blood first. But this movement is also assassinating politicians in the city.

In the government, there are tensions between the police and the military, and there is a president with a very narrow mandate. He did not win his election with a large majority, but a narrow plurality, and a lot of Antiochans are unsatisfied with his government. He's formed a team of rivals to help him govern, but it's produced gridlock instead of compromise. And there have been several coup plots from the barracks uncovered. There is a rumor that foreign powers are manipulating the economy, and everyone is on edge and worried.

Antioch is at a place where many nations find themselves. This disquiet, unnerving moment where everyone within its borders knows change is coming but that change is very, very difficult to think of.

In that way, I'd liken it to a haunted house. It's a place where you know something is wrong. Something is going to happen, but you're not sure if you'll be safe when it does.

As for why the name "Antioch?" I'd be remiss to not acknowledge the role that Christianity, both as an idea and in many cases as an institution, has played on history. Certainly, and I say this as someone with faith, that role has often been appalling. I wonder if at a subconscious level, the name comes from my own feelings about the core ideas that went into my own upbringing. Not just Christianity, but patriotism. Nationalism. Fervent, unrelenting celebration of a nation without stopping to ponder the costs of setting that country up in the first place. Let alone keep it going.

This isn't to say that the book is some antipatriotic screed, or that it's anti-Christian. I promise you, neither the story nor its author are these things. But I think if we are all honest with ourselves, we know we have to contend with the unease of knowing something you might love has done awful things. Does awful things. And sometimes, we have to question our own complicity in enabling and supporting these systems, ideologies and practices.

The name Antioch is as problematic as the country itself. As problematic as, I would argue, any country is. Maybe with the exception of Costa Rica. It's rare a nation abolishes its military and experiences over half a century of peace. But then...Costa Rica is not without racial discrimination either. Sadly.

Burnett: To what extent are your characters subject to a “personal history” that isn’t explicitly present in the book? Are there any that stand out as particularly “full” in this sense? In other words, can you explain which character feels most alive to you as their author and why?

Edwards: Well when I began outlining the novel, I had character notes on a lot of the characters. Every member of the Esquival family, for instance, had a life outside of the events of the novel. I think knowing a character's background makes them feel way more "real" in that sense. I joke in my notes that William Esquival is, for instance, "Joe Biden if he was an actual socialist." I knew William was a socialist, but he wasn't anything resembling an ideologue. You notice he never even says the name "Marx." Instead he's this creature of the senate, this creature of cordiality who truly believes he can make friends with anyone. So in that sense, William feels like a real person to me. It's not a stretch to imagine him operating in say, the United States in 2022.

More specifically, if I have to think about who feels the most real, I think regrettably I'd offer up William's peer in the Senate, Maria Martin. Senator Martin's politics are...well, I'll tell you that my personal fear is that she'll benefit from Rorschach syndrome. I remember Alan Moore said he was sort of horrified that people gravitated towards the character of Rorschach, who was written as an extremist loner who more than-flirted with fascism. To be fair to the Rorschach fans though, or just to give them the benefit of the doubt, I think that in the story of Watchmen Rorschach is one of the few characters to exercise agency. Or at least exercise their agency first.

But Maria Martin doesn't really benefit from that, does she? So: why does she stand out to me as "alive" and why am I so afraid people will be drawn to her?

I think she feels alive because she was not in my original outlines. So I'm contradicting myself here. Compared to William, there was all of nothing written about Maria Martin before I undertook the novel drafting. She just sort of emerged from the telling of the story. First as a foil to William, and then as a lot more. And she feels particularly "real" and alive to me because, by nature of the way she was written into the story, she was more responsive as the telling went on.

I don't want to spoil too much, but just to give you an example, there's a moment in the novel where Maria Martin is talking with Emelda, the Esquival family matriarch and William's wife. And the conversation turns into an argument. And in that argument we see a lot of the mask, the veneer peeled off Senator Martin and you are left with this angry, offended person. I had NO plans for that moment in the telling, but it became very integral in the plot in character development.

There's also Victoria ("Torie") Esquival. Who also just went COMPLETELY off my outline plan. But I can talk about Torie later.

Burnett: One thing I feel compelled to emphasize here is that this is very much a horror novel with powerful and effective supernatural elements. What horror/weird fiction books and writers were floating around in your head when writing? As a haunted house novel that challenges the typical boundaries of the house as a physical structure, I’d also be interested to hear if any haunted house novels served as an inspiration for Casa Verde.

Edwards: When I wrote In the Devil's Cradle, I actually wasn't reading a lot of weird fiction, or even horror stories. I was revisiting and sometimes for the first time visiting some of my favorite Russian writers. Two books are tied for my favorite novel of all time, Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago and Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, neither of which have much of a supernatural element but have very deep horror elements and fully realized characters. Both novels are the story of a moment, long, hard moments of political upheaval and people caught up in them. I've joked before that In the Devil's Cradle is essentially Dr. Zhivago with ghosts, and while it was very unintentional, the similarities between the two works are difficult to miss for me as I reread Zhivago for now the sixth time.

In terms of which haunted house in particular, I have to say that Richard Matheson's Hell House is very much what I had in mind. I think it is perhaps my favorite haunted house narrative until it reaches the third act, when it gets a bit too cartoonishly "good vs. evil" for my taste, which is something I tried to avoid in this story.

In terms of weird writers, because it is hard to escape them when writing weird fiction, I'd say that the narrative and style are more influenced by my contemporary peers than any established canon writers. The writer I keep coming back to the most when I reread In the Devil's Cradle is S. P. Miskowski, who I think is a real pioneer of weird fiction in terms of breaking the Manichean trap that so many horror stories get trapped in. Her characters rarely fall into good or evil.

But there are some other inspirations for Casa Verde in particular that are important. There's the Museo Casa Quinta Bolivar in Bogota, which is a very strange place. It's difficult to explain what Simon Bolivar is to many people. He's like George Washington, Mao Zedong and even sometimes portrayed as Christ-like. He's all of these things rolled into one. So in the Quinta Bolivar Museum, everything is named after "the great liberator." There's "the great liberator's bedroom," "the great liberator's socks," and the "the great liberator's sword." The last one has quite a story, I'd advise the unfamiliar to look it up.

But I wanted Casa Verde to be like that. It's this place that is central to a nation's history, and yet sort of shunned. Its builder, Thomas Holcomb, I would say is equal parts Bolivar and Andrew Jackson, haunts the house as much as he haunts the country of Antioch.

Burnett: You’ve expressed uncertainty in the past over your future in fiction, and it’s undoubtedly difficult in the best of situations to know what’s coming next. With this in mind, what would you ideally like to accomplish in the next few years? Is another novel a possibility? More short stories? Can readers of In the Devil’s Cradle reasonably hope for a follow up in the future?

Edwards: I think a thematic sequel is going to happen, and fortunately I've begun writing sporadically again. There is a third collection of short stories where half of it is Antioch stories, so there are "sequels" of sorts.

The second novel will likewise feature politics but be set in a period of fragile national consolidation rather than collapse. It will look at policing and justice, really zeroing in on how we define both against a dramatic and supernatural backdrop.

S. L. Edwards is a far-traveling Texan who has finally made it home. He enjoys dark poetry, dark fiction and darker beer. He's the author of multiple short story collections, including Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts. His debut novel, In the Devil's Cradle will be released November 8th, 2022

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