“Bodies fill the fields I see
The slaughter never ends”
— Metallica, “Disposable Heroes”
One of many indelible images in Nathan Carson’s debut novella: An old Dodge Dart, thrash metal hammering its interior, takes flight, aimed at an otherworldly enemy emerging, raging, from the wilderness. It’s 1986, but this may as well be the apocalypse on a Lovecraftian patch just south of Corvallis.
Published in November, “Starr Creek” (Lazy Fascist Press, Portland) presents environs familiar to anyone who grew up, as Carson did, in less populated, more sylvan regions, albeit with horrific and at times perverse twists.
At its center are three high-school friends — lovers of role-playing games, heavy metal, weed, pharmaceuticals and relieving pastoral boredom by any means necessary — who unwittingly find themselves in deepening conflict with a hillbilly clan (to his credit, Carson depicts this tempting target with sensitivity and humanity) and worse, even more insidious creatures inhabiting the woods. Joining the fray are two curious preadolescent boys and a biker gang, all meeting in a breathless, climactic scorched-earth battle.
For a book mostly written in 60 days, “Creek” bears no traces of expediency. It’s a confident work, with vivid characters, memorable sequences (four words: dog food, woods porn) and a solid flow. Its setting is an authentic, recognizable ’80s, deftly executing a delicate balancing act of evoking a period without pining for it. As a bonus, it references excellent bands and music.
Carson’s perhaps best known as the drummer/cofounder of Portland metal band Witch Mountain. But he’s always been a writer — a prolific one, in fact, contributing music- and culture-related pieces to such outlets as Willamette Week and Noisey. Then, about three years ago, he began pursuing another market entirely, this one related to his very roots in words: fiction.
The Corvallis native has written stories since the age of 6. At 10, he discovered the author whose work still inspires him: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose horror fiction went ignored in his own lifetime (1890-1937), but whose style and themes cast massive shadows over subsequent generations.
Carson first encountered his name — as well as that of Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s most famous creation (so famous, in fact, that my Word program corrects any misspellings) — in the first edition of “Deities & Demigods,” an “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” reference book. He immersed himself further through the “Call of Cthulhu” role-playing game.
“From a gaming perspective,” Carson said, “it was interesting to see this more Victorian/Prohibition-era horror gaming. I think ‘The Outsider’  is the first Lovecraft story I ever read. Granted, so much of his work has been redone by now that it’s hard for his stories to have the same impact today that they would have had even in 1983, when I read them. I was drawn to his cosmicism and the atmospheres he creates, the language. … I wrote a lot of stories when I was in high school, but they were all pastiches of Lovecraft, Clive Barker and worthless exercises, but it was still necessary growth.”
Oregon-based sci-fi author Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction” (first published in 1981), however, convinced the teenage Carson to put such ambitions on hold. “I would almost be tempted to recommend,” Knight cautioned, “that you leave writing alone until you are in your early 30s. … It took me about 12 years to work my way. … It may take you more or less time to travel the same distance, depending on your age, experience, talent, determination and luck.”
“I took that to heart and pursued music and other careers,” Carson said. “I traveled, met lots of people. Then 20 years went by. As a professional musician, I’ve learned not to be a hobbyist. Three years ago, when I turned 40 I said, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m not going to mess around.’”
And he hasn't. In that span his short stories have been collected in a clutch of anthologies including “Cthulhu Fhtagn!” (“The Lurker in the Shadows”), “Swords of Cthulhu” ("The King of Lapland’s Daughter”) and “The Madness of Dr. Caligari” (“The Projection Booth”). Then last year he was approached to write the novella that became “Starr Creek,” written over a two-month period thanks to a Witch Mountain run with Danzig through October 2015.
“I'd slated 90 days to get it done,” Carson said, “but then we were invited to go on tour, so that shortened my turnaround time to 60 days. Then I had eight or nine months to tinker with the language and edit, which was mostly about making it read cleaner and more fluidly.”
Upcoming projects include an adaptation for a comic book, more short stories and a return to the “Starr Creek” universe, many years into the future, for a larger novel. Meanwhile, Witch Mountain enters its second decade with a New Year’s Eve show in Portland, spring festival dates and plans for a full-length album with its two newest members, vocalist Kayla Dixon and bassist Justin Brown.
In the meantime, Carson will return to the city of his youth for a 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, reading at the Book Bin, 215 S.W. Fourth St., Corvallis. He won’t be too far from Starr Creek itself, but he advises curious fans to keep their distance.
“People move to those areas to be left alone,” he said. “It’s a no-trespassing zone, for sure. I felt weird about keeping the name the same, but it’s something that’s resonated with me since I was young.”
How intertwined are metal and Lovecraft-type fiction?
I certainly studied up to a point a lot of the intersections because there are so many bands that have famously referenced H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve sat on horror-convention panels and discussed that music. At a certain point it’s become ubiquitous. You couldn’t even make a list of all the bands that have referenced him. It’s such fodder for heavy metal at this point it’s a cliché.
There are classic touchstones to me, like Metallica songs, because they were some of the first popular artists to bring Lovecraft to the fore. Also, there’s a band called Rudimentary Peni, which is my favorite English punk band of all time. They did an entire concept album called “Cacophony," which is very much along the lines of Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” but all based on Lovecraftian themes. It’s the greatest union of Lovecraft and music ever accomplished.
While reading “Starr Creek,” I had to wonder if, as a kid growing up in the area, you made up stories about it and created characters to populate it.
Certainly, so much of the book is based on my experiences growing up south of Corvallis in the woods, and there were a lot of urban legends. Some were less mythological than others. And I tried to take everything I remembered and make it much worse. (laughs)
None of those characters are based on a single person, but they’re all inspired by me and my friends and other people we encountered or heard about. The dog-food-eating contest was something I saw advertised on the marquee at the Longbranch [Bar & Grill] in Monroe when I was 9 years old. I stared up at that and thought, “Is this really what adults do?” So I got to imagine my own worst-case scenario of what the contest might have been like.
That goes over well at readings, where I’ve actually been bringing a dog dish and dog food. It’s really bothering people. (laughs)
Also, the dog-food-eating contest makes such a great introduction for Puppy (a member of “Creek’s” hillbilly clan).
In classic horror fiction, you start with a narrator who’s an academic or a skeptic. It’s all about taking this guy from a position where he doesn’t believe in anything to where he’s drooling with madness because he’s discovered too much. My approach to that was to root it in something very earthy, dark and believable. What deeper connection do you have than this sort of “body horror,” eating something disgusting? We can all relate to that. Even if you haven’t eaten a bowl of dry dog food, you have a sense of how that would taste and how it would make you feel, doing it in front of a crowd in a hot, crowded place.
Also, the idea of hillbilly villains can be such a caricature. I wanted to humanize these people before taking them further along and at least make them somewhat three-dimensional. There isn’t much space to flesh these characters out too much, so I’m trying to give a template where people can project what they imagine onto these people.
I don’t really describe appearances very much. I don’t mention skin tone more than once. One is described as pale and another is described as half-native. Of course, it is the backwoods of Oregon in the 1980s, so I know where my imagination goes.
Why is it set in the past?
Partially because I had a short time frame to do this, so I wanted to work from a place that I knew. Setting this in a time and area that I was intimately familiar with would free me to focus my efforts on the story’s other complexities. This being my first time writing a longer work, I didn’t want to have to do an insane amount of world-building. I didn’t want to go down any paths where I couldn’t retrace my steps.
I’ve discovered that a number of my readers from urban backgrounds find this very exotic. To me, it’s not so abnormal to have kids running around in the woods; that’s how I grew up. To other people, that’s something idyllic or strange they would daydream about. But they never had that experience.
“Starr Creek” focuses initially on three high-school friends. Later you introduce two younger characters who provide a link to an earlier incident and become part of the larger plot. What inspired you to bring them in so late in the story?
They came from the seeds of a separate short story I’d been wanting to work on. I had this idea of two younger kids discovering a crashed spaceship or something like that. I had this image of them giving painkillers to a wounded alien. As I was working on “Starr Creek,” I realized that their story could be incorporated and it would give me a third set of character to intertwine. As I started to incorporate them, the links became stronger and stronger. It fell into place nicely.
It wasn’t preplanned, but those were ideas that I had floating around. I tried to stitch them all together and I’m happy with how it worked out. Also, I did go to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade in Monroe, so I used to be that little kid walking around, buying 10-cent comics and stealing fireworks from the store.
And plumbing the woods for porn.
Did you see the Dangerousminds.net article a couple of weeks ago, about woods porn? It’s interesting. I reposted that article and got dozens of responses from so many guys who had that experience, with porn mags in the woods. It’s so ubiquitous for people who live in the country. It was a fascination of the young male that I hadn’t really seen in fiction before.
Initially, their adventure is like a children’s adventure (minus the woods porn) until they get involved with this much heavier story.
I don’t want to make stupid characters, but I don’t want them to be purely heroic. They’re not good or evil; they’re just people, especially young people. So often in films and literature you see young people who are either helpless or ninja wizards. I like the idea that they’re riding around on three-wheelers, getting over their heads in these situations. They try to do the right thing, but life’s complex.
So where did the notion of the Christian bike gang come from?
That’s part of a longer work. The next book I plan to write is set 76 years after this one but ostensibly in the same universe. That biker gang would be descendants of that culture. "Angels Harp," if you make it one word, it has the word “sharp." I’m imagining in future books that the borders of this secessionist Oregon are protected by Christian skinhead bikers. That’s not important to the “Starr Creek” plot, but it’s a nice Easter egg for the future. Their Christianity is hardly mentioned in “Starr Creek,” although Willy does begin to pray at one point. It just sounded cool on the back of the book, when I was trying to describe all these disparate things happening in a short novella.
We’ve mentioned Lovecraft, but I was also reminded of Stephen King’s “It,” which came out around the same time “Starr Creek” was set.
I have a great respect for Stephen King, the man, but I was never obsessed with his writing. My favorite King works are his nonfiction books, like “On Writing.” I really like those. I did read some of the “Dark Tower” books and some of the short stories collections, like “Night Shift,” when I was younger. But, really, at about the same time I was discovering Stephen King, I was also discovering H.P. Lovecraft. No disrespect to Stephen King, but I just didn’t grow up on those books the way so many other people did.
I think it’s a valid reference point for any horror book, especially one set in the ’80s. I’ve had other people mention things like “E.T.,” “The Goonies” and “Stranger Things,” too.
I personally think that although “Starr Creek” is set in the ’80s, it’s not necessarily a nostalgic work. I’ve seen the word “nostalgic” used in reviews several times. People take whatever they want from it, and if that’s what you get, that’s OK.
But I think there should be a distinction between setting something in the past and having a nostalgia for it. It’s just a time and place I felt I could vividly conjure. If I wanted to set this in Thailand in 1914, I’d have to do a lot of research. (laughs)
Similarly, with the “Stranger Things” comparisons: I’ve seen some similarities there, but I think the idea of elementary school kids riding bicycles and eating Eggo waffles in the ’80s is not a genre. It’s something that happened.
I assume most of the characters contain elements of you and people you know or knew. But is there a character you feel best represents who you were in 1986?
I tried not to do that, but there are parts of me in all the characters because they come from my imagination. I would say the young boy Ethan and the teenage boy Allen were more closely based on me than other characters, but I still made a point to diverge our personalities and let them be themselves. There are some elements or descriptions of actions that came from me for those characters, but I didn’t particularly want to be any one of them.
How are you finding life as a professional author?
I’m thrilled simply because it’s something I’ve wanted to do. I know how challenging it is and how much people struggle. And I feel that in a really short time I’m getting further than a lot of people do, being able to get reviewed by name in magazines and appear in anthologies with other writers I respect and to have a short story in an offset hardbound book and pack Powell’s at a reading event.
It’s really cool to me to constantly see the growth. I’m happy with what’s happening with the band, but it took a long time. My goal with writing is to get a lot further a lot faster. So far that’s going really well.
I’ve never been one to try to make my most creative endeavors be my day job because as soon as you’re relying on your art to put bread on the table, you’re putting yourself in a position to compromise your creativity. Again, that would be an interesting scenario to be in, but in the meantime, I like for the separation of church and state: doing creative things for my soul and having other means to pay my rent.