Metal bands have been using literature as inspiration for decades, but for whatever reason, the two worlds seldom intersect when it comes to actual production...writers tend to stay on one side of the room while musicians stare at them from the other. Shuffling around somewhere in the middle are people like Nathan Carson, drummer of Portland-based doom titans Witch Mountain and published author of short fiction. He's the rare artist who has feet firmly planted in both worlds—as his band begins a month-long tour with Danzig and Superjoint, he's currently riding high from the recent publication of his short story, "The Sculptress Has No Hands." (Check out a video of Carson reading the story below.)
Oh, and on top of being a professional musician and writer, the dude runs Nanotear Booking Agency (which counts Agalloch, YOB, Vektor and SubRosa as clients), regularly DJs in the Portland area and writes live music reviews for several publications. We're pretty convinced he has a demonic, time-altering rune in his possession, but as you'll see from the interview below, Carson credits his productivity to something simpler: a lifetime obsession with all things weird.
“The Sculptress Has No Hands” was recently published in Strange Aeons magazine #18. What was your inspiration for this piece?
My inspiration for this tale (like many of my stories) came while I was attending the symphony. I feel very creative when I hear a large orchestra playing. With a bit of herbal assistance, my mind tends to wander into fertile vistas that I mine soon after. In this case, I was watching a very modern piece and thinking about the space the composer had left, and how those vacancies were artful unto themselves.
How long did it take you to complete the story?
As a former computer animator, I’m the type of person who does incremental saves. That being the case, I can look back and see that I wrote the first 1,500 words in one sitting on May 19. After a dozen more passes of finishing and revision, the final version was completed on July 15 and stands around 4,180 words. My initial goal was to write something in 2,000 or fewer words, but these characters demanded to be more fleshed out and realized.
Are you generally satisfied with the amount of time it takes you to finish a story?
I have other creative outlets, music being chief among them. I’m sure I could be busting out stories on a weekly basis if it was the only thing I had to occupy my time. But with juggling so many responsibilities—being in a recording band that tours two to three months a year; running a business; going to see shows/events three to four nights a week; being a DJ at clubs and on the radio; maintaining personal, professional and romantic relationships—I’m very satisfied getting three to four stories out per year right now. Especially since they’re all getting published.
What’s your history with creative writing? When did you discover you had an interest and talent for creating your own stories?
I started writing as soon as I learned to read. I’ve posted a story online that I wrote when I was six about a family of dinosaurs. There’s a short illustrated story I wrote when I was nine about an anthropomorphic loaf of bread in the Wild West called “Billy the Bread.” I was using non-human characters very early on, thanks in part to being steeped in Godzilla/Tojo creatures, Muppets and Star Wars cantina creatures from a young age. I was also exposed to a lot of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels thanks to my mom and her mom.
In high school, I was very prolific, but all of my stories from that time were awful pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and the Evil Dead films. The only reason I have pride in any of it is because I subjected my poor creative writing teachers to an excess of cannibalism and weirdness. I’m glad I could get that demo stage out of the way so early.
From there, I continued to write just as I continued to play music and draw demonic superhero characters in the margins of my homework. When I was 19, I read a book by Damon Knight called Creating Short Fiction. It has some great exercises in it. I took one bit of advice very seriously, which was something along the lines of, “If you’re under 30, you should go get some real life experience before becoming a writer.” I’m afraid I took this too deeply to heart and ended up waiting until I was 40 to really get serious. Luckily, by then I had been professionally publishing non-fiction for about 15 years; had traveled extensively; and generally had developed my own opinions about life, humanity, and the world around me. So, I may be getting a late start, but it’s all going very well because I have something to say and I know how to be a disciplined artist, not just someone who wishes they could write or be published. I also learned from the music scene how essential it is to involve yourself in the community if you want to get anywhere at all.
Witch Mountain are about to go on tour with Danzig. Do you ever do any creative writing while you’re on the road?
Unfortunately, I tend to get headaches when I read or write in the van. And usually, if I’m not driving, I’m napping or working. But since I have a novella due by the end of the year—my first ever standalone book with my name on the spine—I’m going to try to change this. Whether I actually get down some prose on the freeway or simply do outlines and character sketches and just develop my ideas so they can be properly written when I get home from tour remains to be seen. But I’m going to do my damndest to use that downtime for the benefit of my writing career.
You were recently published in Cthulhu Fhtagn!, an anthology of stories inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Do you remember the first time you encountered Lovecraft’s work? What was it about his writing that compelled you?
I discovered Lovecraft when I was 10, thanks to a neighbor with whom I played D&D. He introduced me to the “Call of Cthulhu” role-playing game, and I read “The Outsider” soon after. That story and his archaic language captured my precocious imagination, and I didn’t really have another favorite author until I discovered Gene Wolfe five or six years later.
Language aside, I appreciated Lovecraft’s atheism and cosmicism. His descriptions were florid and seemed like a gateway to another time and place. Of course, the more you read him, the more amateur some of it begins to seem, but overall, he was a springboard for an entire subculture. And when you’re a young, nerdy kid, his one-dimensional protagonists and aspects of his alien worldview can make a lot of sense.
Why do you think so many metal bands use Lovecraft stories and mythology as source material?
Lovecraft created a whole pantheon of alien beings with godlike powers and strange names like Cthulhu (aka Ktulu on Metallica’s Ride the Lightning). Countless death metal bands have taken his creations wholesale by name, while others like Portal mine the more abstract, non-Euclidian, extra-dimensional territory he conjured. The fact that Lovecraft’s work is now in the public domain certainly doesn’t hurt. He welcomed people to play in his sandbox.
Have you ever been tempted to add Lovecraft themes to Witch Mountain’s music or imagery?
There have never been any Witch Mountain lyrics that involve anything Lovecraftian per se, but then again, I’ve never been the chief lyricist of the band. I did pen the words to our very first song back in ’97—it was about dinosaurs and rainbows, but that was more of an homage to Dio than Lovecraft.