Josh Malerman is an influence for many. He’s one of the most prolific and unique writers in the speculative fiction space working today and has been equally one of the most encouraging citizens of the writing community. So when I reached out to him about what we might talk about in celebration of his latest novel, Daphne, it made sense to offer him a chance to dig deep and seek out the influences that fueled his prolific output. There’s a ghost story—an urban legend, if you will—about a girl named Daphne who died mysteriously. There are a variety of theories, but it comes down to the fact that Daphne might be more than a story and she just might be plotting her next move.
Daphne is the latest novel in an oeuvre that continues to expand horizons. Malerman keeps writing and making music. He continues his forward momentum, no matter what. It’s inspiring, but what inspired Malerman to conjure up the darkness we see in his work?
I asked the man himself—read his answer below.
Josh Malerman's reflections on "influences"
Josh Malerman: Influence. Nebulous word, that. And what influences your writing more than your worldview? And who influenced your worldview… to begin with? The parents who cheered (rose from the couch to do so) when you read your first book, on your own, no help from them, from beginning to end? Or maybe it was your closest friends, the birds of a feather who drank together, tried LSD together, experimented with sexuality, started a band, moved to NYC, toured the country… maybe it’s them and their worldviews, so similar to your own, who influenced that perspective that now shines in your writing (whether you mean for it to or not).
Or maybe it’s the books you read, the films you see, the art you experience.
Yet… we’ve all watched similar films, read similar books. And still our stories are so different.
What’s the real root influence then? Who made me me and you you?
It’s a thrilling (and possibly unanswerable) question; one I adore. Is there anything more frightening than identity? And loss thereof? Or, perhaps worse, fooling yourself into thinking your identity is static, that you can no longer change? The horror of misplaced identity has become a theme through many of my books (none more than Carpenter’s Farm). It’s not something I set out to do, but something I recognize now. And in its way, Daphne is no different. The book may feature a seven-foot denim clad madwoman who smells of smoke and whiskey, but what Daphne really is Kit Lamb’s coming panic attack. And the more Kit thinks about her, the closer that attack gets.
But here: if I really imagine the flow of art and artists I’ve experienced over time, I think I can pluck out a handful of key experiences, lessons, that either influenced Daphne directly, or had such a profound effect on me, that they must indirectly show in all the books.
Let’s start with the prolifics:
Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Pollard, Stephen King, Agathie Christie…
Some people might say these people aren’t artists. Some may say they are. But the one thing they all have in common is an unfathomable work ethic. A well that never runs dry. A reserve or… maybe it’s a confidence, belief in their mindset, their worldview, that gives them the gumption to tell that many stories, sing this many songs. If there’s one word I live by, it’s momentum, and nobody’s exemplified this word more than they have. To a writer like me, Daphne was once “the next idea in line.” This was before I really met Kit Lamb, really got to understand the book was about anxiety first, and slashing second. Yet, it was the momentum to “write the next idea” that got me in the chair to begin with. For that I will forever salute the Prolifics.
And how about firsts. How about…
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Twilight Zone was first horror movie I ever saw! And what an introduction it was. An ensemble, an anthology, four stories so different from one another they acted as directional signposts for a young me, taught me how far each way I could go with the genre (from the movie, in order: social commentary, heart-strings, unchained imagination, creature feature). For all I knew then, after finishing the first horror movie I ever saw, the genre was limitless. And I still believe this today.
And does anything exemplify the elasticity of the genre more than the music does? Talk about influence! How about when I started collecting horror soundtracks on vinyl. How about when I discovered, for me…
Creepshow (soundtrack) by John Harrison
Another anthology, but here, five distinct musical pieces, various moods, unseen scenes, music to write to. When the day came that I was told John Harrison would be directing my episode for Creepshow on Shudder (“The House of the Head”), it felt like a full circle moment, that word “momentum” again, the greatest full circle I could know (until I wrote Malorie to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack for the movie Bird Box. That was a wonderful mindscrew for me).
All this music and more while writing Daphne. And not all of it horror soundtracks. A good deal of it is early metal/hard rock, like…
Hemispheres by Rush and Powerslave by Iron Maiden
Both these albums sound more “dark fantasy” to me now than ever. You can imagine mean magic, mad wizards, or maybe… a mad woman… a giant… stalking a group of friends through a fantasy landscape, a city you made up yourself… a basketball team, yes, another mainstay from childhood, a serious love for the game in all its forms, not to take the form of “basketball theater” until I was grown… until I read books like…
When March Went Mad
Peppered along the bookshelves in my office are a number about the history of basketball. I’ve tried my hand at “sports” books before, but when I started Track & Field I hadn’t finished a novel yet and didn’t know how. Still, basketball did work its way into my first finished novel, Wendy, and because of books like Seth Davis’s, I’ve long known you can maintain the thrill, the theater, the duration of a full novel by way of sports. Still, maybe it was a sports horror movie that showed me, early, a book like Daphne ought to be written. Even if the movie had the opposite mood of Daphne. That movie being…
Basketball, horror, high school, identity, anxiety! Good lord, look no further. Except… Daphne is about as serious as… well… as serious as a panic attack compared to Teen-Wolf. But what Teen-Wolf lacked in philosophical weight (and there is some surprise weight in this movie), when I think of Kit Lamb at the free throw line, the ball in her hands, asking the rim a question, believing a make means yes and a miss means no, I don’t think of movies or music at all. I think about…
The Magic 8 Ball
Yeah. That one. The one you’d shake up after you got high with your friends in a dimly lit room, listening to amazing albums. The answers rose from the blue-ish goop within the ball, answers beyond a make or a miss, Beyond Yes or No. Answers like: It is likely. But Kit and her friends can read more into a make or a miss as well. If the ball rolls around the rim before falling through? Well then that means the yes will just take some time. But if you ask the rim if Daphne is going to kill you, and you swish that shot?
Well… Kit… I’m sorry but… not even the writer can get you out of that one.
What about the incredible self-examination, the horror of identity in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Or the flagship book about self-esteem, Nathaniel Brandon’s The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem? I suspect my influences lie loudest in these books and stories written with fire and joy. Like Melville’s Moby Dick and all things Poe.
But really? I’m most influenced by the people I meet who also live by momentum. Those who go go go, in whatever walk of life they’ve chosen.
It’s never been about the details of a thing for me. I’ll take pulse over prose, spirit over skill. And maybe it was my friends who taught me that. And maybe it was my parents.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’re each of us born with tastes and inclinations. And when we sit down to express ourselves, those root elements pour forth, in the form of music, of film, of novel.
In this case?
And may she go easy on you. Though I know…
It is unlikely…