WISTWOOD: Sometimes …
… the deadliest secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.
Author Jonathan Kieran returns with the epic novel WISTWOOD, a terrifying, dark fable for darkening days. With a hint of redemption to wash the horror down.
by Roger C. Lindstrom
When author Jonathan Kieran described his life as semi-reclusive I didn’t take him all that seriously. Until I drove out to his house to take photographs and conduct an interview for our Arts edition, that is. Just finding Jonathan’s place in the forest highlands behind Big Sur was a wild adventure. Civilization ends and scary woods begins. Past hairpin turns, mountains, and boulders tumbling down hills you eventually find his place, forty-five miles from Carmel. No houses are seen from the roads out here. It’s beautiful but it could be a scene right out of Wistwood, Kieran’s new psychological horror and supernatural novel that comes out April 21.
Jonathan was gathering wood in a satchel when I finally got there but gave me a warm welcome to his secluded ranch property, complete with a winding stream not twenty feet from his back door. I could easily see how someone might be able to write in this amazing spot.
While able to chat and take some photos to accompany the interview, a newly fallen oak tree limb on the property needed attention, so we decided to postpone the sit down interview. Within a week, the COVID-19 social distancing protocols were in place, so we decided to do everything by email, even though production on our print weekly has now been suspended indefinitely, along with so many other local enterprises. It was still great to meet Jonathan and happy to give him the interview to run with. Jonathan’s frightening, mysterious new novel, Wistwood, will be available for special Amazon preorder on April 7th and officially released in eBook and print on April 21th. Enjoy the back and forth of our online interview!
You released an elaborate trilogy of fairy tales in 2012 with the Rowan Blaize series, one of those books written entirely in epic verse, which was totally unusual in this day and age. Then you turned out a scathing look at internet comments sections in 2015. The Midwest Book Review praised the book and described it as “… the possible first stirring of internet anthropology.” Now five years later we hear from you and this new novel, Wistwood, is beautiful but chilling. It covers themes like hell on earth, afterlife, human envy, greed, beings from other dimensions, and the idea that darker forces are at work among us. Congratulations on the book, but why so long between works and why this particular novel, now?
JK: As far as the interval between books is concerned, I’m not exactly a churn-em out kind of writer to begin with. Craftsmanship is paramount for me, and that requires a definitive, stable period of time and devotion. Plus, an idea really has to take firm hold in my psyche and in my gut before I’ll even consider the burden of writing a long-form work, which is an enormous undertaking.
But, frankly, availability of time has been the biggest issue by far. I started building a house in 2016, with all that that entails, for the purpose of moving into it, staging it, and then selling it. That took over two and a half years. There was really no time or sense of the “settled” sort of quality required to tackle a big new book project. That changed when I sold the house, moved back to the Ventana wilderness, and Wistwood was born subsequently. But I’d had lots of ideas on my mind, for sure, during that interval, and was busy with illustration work and research for other scraps of projects that have been gestating. Really, though, I flat out didn’t have the time to devote to a novel from 2016 through early 2019.
As to your question ‘why this particular book?’ Well, look around the world. Look at humanity—stressed, confused, scattered, and off its proverbial rocker in every sphere from religious mania to social media to politics to environmental anxiety. Pervasively so. There’s a worldwide “disconnect,” I call it, on a number of levels. It creeps me out that humans have more information and innovation at their immediate fingertips than at any other time in the history of our species, and yet we’re more addled than ever, and searching for meaning more desperately than ever. And I don’t think it all comes down to a simple explanation like, “We have too many choices.” I sense something possibly more sinister at work. Organic, but sinister. I suppose I’m a little bit surprised I wrote such a raw, explicit tale as Wistwood, but not really surprised that this kind of story was lurking in my brain in the first place. That it was hanging around. There’s always been a dark undercurrent running through my work. How could I be too surprised that a heavy-duty psychological horror piece eventually emerged from my strange brain?
It’s a complete departure from your previous works for sure. How does that square with the idea of trying to build a loyal following of readers, etc?
JK: I know that it might not make a lot of sense to a lot of people, on the face of things. Usually a writer finds one genre and sticks to it. It certainly the smartest thing to do, I imagine, in terms of a commercial perspective. But I’m atypical in many respects. My personal interests and fascinations are broad, eclectic, and always marked by intensity. Even my parents and teachers noted this when I was a child. If I’m interested in something, it’s never just a passing fancy: I’m intensely interested, devoted. And I remain so regarding a fairly wide array of subjects and phenomena.
My abilities are diverse, as well. I can compose and perform music. I’ve been an actor. I’m a fine woodworker. A professional illustrator—that’s how I got my professional start with arts in any form. Research is likewise a passion and I’m a crackerjack at that. Research work is an art form, I believe. A category unto itself. But for me, a vivacious curiosity for answers and meanings, radiant or dark, is at the heart of all these approaches. It’s the common thread. Life’s one big treasure hunt for me, really. I know of no other way to put it than to say that I’m zealously fascinated by what fascinates me … and am lucky to have the ability to interpret and manifest my discoveries in artistic ways, I guess. If people respond, wonderful. If not, my dedication to my interests does not change.
At the opposite end of that assessment, I can say that if something bores me, it bores me utterly. To say that I might be a tad obsessive-compulsive would not be missing the mark. Not unhealthily so, according to those who love and know me best—and believe me, I ask from time to time!—but you gotta stay on top of that stuff, too. Occasional self-scrutiny is good for the soul and the body, maybe more-so for writers. Scrupulousness, however, is not.
How would you summarize Wistwood as a novel for someone unfamiliar with any of your works or for fans who know your other works but might be surprised to see this new type of story from you?
JK: Ideally, novels should not be over-explained by an author. No story should be, in my opinion. Discussion among readers is great. Go for it, readers, and thank you. But from a writer’s standpoint, I think a story should run on its own fuel, if you will. That being said, people benefit from little explanations ahead of time, so Wistwood is the story of a conflicted, maybe even tormented, young guy, Brask Adams. 28. Life‘s been rough on him. He has a sudden change of fortune and wants a second chance at things, a fresh start, in this remote California wilderness town, away from the world’s noise and ruin. But second chances always come at a cost. Sometimes the cost is economic. Sometimes the cost is emotional. Sometimes the cost can be life itself. And sometimes, the cost might be eternal. In Brask’s case, his pursuit of a second chance finds him caught in the middle of supernatural forces he could never have imagined to exist. He’s not a believer in anything. And yet he‘s in this place, in the town of Wistwood, for a reason. He learns, along with a lot of other characters, that the deadliest secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.
It’s a character study. The narrator is omniscient. Part of the vibe of this story concerns what people are willing to say and present to others as opposed to what’s truly going on in their hearts. That sometimes wild dichotomy. The near-necessity of using varying degrees of falsehood to survive and stay sane in a society. It’s definitely a horror story. Explicit. Graphic in places. Yeah, there’s some metaphysical inquiry involved. Human arrogance is another big theme, I’d say. But, ultimately, it’s about a desperate guy in trouble, a guy who’s seeking answers, like many desperate people do, in places that look promising at first, but which turn out to be much, much worse than their original troubles could ever be.
I hope people respond to the craftsmanship, the storytelling, the characters, the twists, the scares. Life is scary. Books can be scary too. I mean, it’s entertainment. It’s a work of entertainment. With everything of gravity going on in the world right now, certain people might find some escape in it. I know that I love to dig deep into a gripping book when the outside world seems especially off the boil.
Do you think that this time of pandemic will drive people in greater numbers to rediscover books as an escape or will they be too distracted to read and look for easier forms of entertainment like videogames or movies, etc.?
JK: Who knows? I haven’t got a lot of positive things to say about the general state of the human attention-span, at this point in time. But I don’t want to underestimate people, either. That’s a terrible mistake to make, when outright dismissing people in a cynical way and diminishing what they are capable of achieving under duress, for better or for worse. People can still surprise you in wonderful ways. Our species has proved this time and again over the centuries, mostly in moments that will never be told or remembered. But the effects of humans rising to their various challenges, great and small, go forward in time. The ramifications are still felt, I believe. And that does give one a certain amount of hope.
As for entertainment, people have always sought it in periods of stress because there has never been a prolonged time on this earth when humans have not been under some form of significant stress. This is not the kind of world in which we live. This is not the way the planet itself functions and operates. But for the unique quality of human mercy, and civilization as its corollary, this is otherwise an “eat or get eaten” planet. Wistwood explores this aspect of our world. This unpalatable, difficult truth. For all its great beauty, it is a violent, unforgiving place.
People are definitely hungry for distraction and edification, but mostly for distraction, these days. The difficulty, or one of them, is that distraction now comes in a mind-boggling array of easily obtainable forms that are not, by any means, of equal quality and beneficence. I appreciate the concept of relativity, but I am not a relativist. All things are not equal, in terms of contributing to the actual health of the human mind and spirit. Wide-ranging crises, like the one we are now experiencing with the COVID-19 virus, often lead people to step away from the chaos and rediscover some deeper values, the less frantic commercial forces vying for their attention. Like I said before, escaping into the world of a well-crafted book, reading the words and entering that realm via your own imagination, is unlike any other form of entertainment. In times like this, some people will opt for greater discernment, some for less. Let the chips fall where they may, because they’re gonna fall.
Would you mind listing your five favorite books of all time and how or why they have inspired you in your own life and work?
Oh, wow. List requests like this are fun, but they’re never reliable for accuracy, at least in terms of constancy. Favorites come to mind in one setting, one little space of time, and then they change frequently, fluidly. But I’ll give it a shot in this moment, though in no particular order:
HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster—This may seem a strange choice for a guy who’s currently releasing a supernatural, psychological horror novel, but Forster’s work has had a big influence upon me, and this classic in particular still resonates. The economy of his writing style—while always managing to be breathtakingly insightful—is a unique voice in all of literature, in my view. He’s practical, he’s subtly witty, he’s penetrative in a masterful way, he’s brutally honest. And this tale of Edwardian class differences and the ultimate value of honoring one’s heart’s desire is perfection. Obviously, for me, the book turns on the fact that the Wilcox family, in their wealthy arrogance, deliberately rejected the mother’s dying wish to leave her house to someone she knew would love and honor it. They tried to interfere with fate, but fate will take its course and become an equalizer of humans—throwing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. But even that might not last because the world is the world is the world. Fate and karma may punish, but there’s no permanence. People still have to pick up the pieces and use it or lose it. It’s my favorite book.
THE GOLDEN ASS by Apuleius—The only true novel that has survived to us from ancient times, it’s also the first known and greatest picaresque ever. And the ersatz intermezzo featuring the tale of Cupid and Psyche remains one of the most thrillingly gorgeous literary experiences I can think of. I can’t glorify this tale enough, however it was wrought, and there’s much debate on that count, of course. I’m thankful to have existed on earth just to have read it.
My personal styles of thought and criticism and composition tend naturally toward the parodic and the picaresque, and I have to channel that, to an extent, when not appropriate for a certain kind of project, like a horror tale, but it’s always there. Always informing. That’s why I was drawn like a moth to lamplight when I first encountered books like The Golden Ass, Don Quixote, or even A Confederacy of Dunces. I recognized in these works little glimmers of my own tendencies toward satire and smart-assery. And it’s an extravagant pleasure—a blessing, maybe—to encounter familiar voices. We need the affirmation of like-minded souls. Works like this, from any age, codify that experience of confraternity. Quite a privilege.
BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—Maybe it seems contrived to include this on a five favorites list, but I do worship the book, and Dostoyevsky’s talent itself. No one can break your heart, or your brain, like a Russian genius. It’s music and tragedy and comedy and faith and nihilism and redemption in one impossible symphony. Dostoyevsky leaves no stone of the human condition unturned in this colossus, and the truth hurts, but it hurts beautifully because of him. I still read the book every few years. It’s a marvel. A sacred text, for me.
A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes—This is a tale of spoiled children who are shanghaied by pirates in the aftermath of a hurricane in Colonialist Jamaica, and it’s one of the most surreal masterpieces I have ever been lucky enough to savor. Frightening, funny, ribald, devastating, disturbing. It shows no mercy. It’s like Lord of the Flies on absinthe. I wish more people knew of the book, but it’s also nice to treasure those best-kept-secret works. This is definitely one of those. A weird delight.
SHOGUN by James Clavell—This epic of historical fiction will never fail to make any faves list of mine. I have to include it here, out of reverence, even if it is probably not really in my Top 5 (more like Top 15). It was the first huge, doorstopping book I read as a little kid and it has held up masterfully. Impeccably plotted and characterized, it paints an indelible portrait of that astonishing time and place. It takes balls to attempt a work of this magnitude and complete it so damned brilliantly. I stand in awe. I enjoyed writing little stories as a kid; I was precocious and was reading material way beyond my age group. But this gigantic book riveted me at ten years of age and made me want to sail the seas with Anjin-san and plot to save Toranaga’s fiefdom. Reading experiences like that are beyond price. They form your soul, your spirit. And if you have the inclination, they make you want to write big stories of your own when you grow up.
What’s next for you in terms of work? What can readers expect given your winding path?
Well, a screenplay for Wistwood is being written right now. I’ll be shopping that around. And there are three long-form projects that are absolute “must-complete” works. I’ve been prepping those for years. Lifetime love-labor works. Those are the only three projects I care deeply about finishing before I die, to the point of saying “everything else can go to hell.” But if fortune smiles in terms of time and long life, I’d also like to complete a few lesser goals: a book about my twenty most memorable world travel experiences—and, believe me, I’ve got some gems; a book about my perception of the spiritual/metaphysical crisis now engulfing the Western world is also a plan; I also want to finish a play I’ve started.
But we’ll see about all of that. Otherwise, I’ll be happy in my woodshop, reclusive but always observant. That’s my ultimate contentment, and I’m grateful for it with every breath. Gratitude saves lives. Believe me.
Any guilty pleasures your readers might be surprised to know about?
As far as books are concerned? I’ll read most anything good about ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, and great white sharks. Those things have constituted something of a Holy Trinity since childhood and, in some respects, I’m still just a big kid. One should certainly grow up and embrace adulthood; this world is no picnic. But people should never lose one or two of their childlike qualities entirely, I believe. Ergo, I still laugh my ass off at old Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons and have been known to secretly fling peas at someone across a dinner table just for the hell of it.
Jonathan Kieran is the Amazon bestselling author of the Rowan Blaize series of fantasy works, the acclaimed non-fiction work Confessions from the Comments Section, and now the epic new psychological horror novel, WISTWOOD. Click on the book cover at the upper right to preorder and purchase Jonathan’s harrowing new work.