My Favorite Bit: Chris Holm talks about The Wrong Goodbye
This week, we have Chris Holm talking about his newest book from Angry Robot, The Wrong Goodbye. It is described as recasting the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. Sounds cool, eh?
So what is Chris Holm’s Favorite Bit?
My main character, Sam Thornton, is a Collector – a reaper of sorts, damned by a devil’s bargain he struck to save his dying wife to an eternity of ferrying the souls of the condemned to hell. In my second Collector novel, THE WRONG GOODBYE, Sam’s forced to dive down the rabbit-hole of the demon drug-trade when the soul he’s tasked with collecting is stolen – destined to be processed into skim.
Which leads me to my favorite bit: namely, world-building a demon drug culture. I didn’t want to go the cheap, tacky route of “it’s like heroin, but, you know, for demons!” I wanted something at once plausible, horrific, and intriguing. Something I hadn’t seen done before. And so I cooked up skim:
The skim-trade is big business in the demon world. It’s sort of a black market for happy memories. Demons like to play all big and scary and superior, but the truth is, when it comes to humankind, the Fallen are jealous as all get-out. See, when they fell, they were removed from the light of God’s grace, and doomed to an eternity of darkness and despair. Skimming’s their way of reversing that – for a time, anyway. If a demon with the proper set of skills can get his hands on a human soul before it’s interred, he can shave off tiny fragments of life experience. This process is, of course, forbidden in the underworld, and it’s dangerous as hell – word is, one slip of the hand and the soul could crack, releasing enough raw energy to level a city block. But done properly, those skimmed fragments provide a high no demon could attain on their own: the high of love, of life; the warm embrace of a moment in God’s grace.
But where on earth could a demon go to imbibe in such a substance? In my world, demons are capable of passing among us, but maintaining human form requires great effort on their part. So a skim-joint would have to be remote enough for them to let their guard down without attracting undue attention. Say, for example, the ruins of an abandoned sanitarium nestled deep in the wilds of New Mexico. It’s past midnight when Sam arrives, hoping to retrieve the stolen soul. He enters through the basement under the cover of a rare desert storm, and after tangling with its somewhat Lovecraftian tenant – all beak and tentacles – he emerges into the skim-joint proper:
Upstairs, a quiet cacophony, like a nightmare cocktail party heard through a shared wall. Myriad drips, drops, and plinks as the torrent outside found its way into the decrepit structure – pooling in depressions, leaking through cracks, pouring off of jagged ledges where the first-floor ceiling had caved in. Dozens of voices, some raised, some quiet, talking all at once in tongues both foreign and familiar. The thud of heavy footsteps above – shuffling, skipping about, and unless I was mistaken, dancing. The crackle of a warped and timeworn record from somewhere far away, playing Patsy Cline at half the speed and twice the warble. And the snap and hiss of candles in the damp.
Navigating the structure he encounters demons of all shapes and sizes – some nearly human:
His shirt-sleeve was rolled up to the elbow, and the tender flesh of his forearm was pocked with track marks – though no needle could mark a demon’s flesh for long; the injury would heal itself before any scarring could occur. And indeed, these marks weren’t from a needle at all, but from countless shards of skim. One such shard was in there now, like a jagged bit of colored glass inserted just beneath the skin – I could see it flickering below the surface like lightning contained within a cloud.
And some pretty far from:
The demon was maybe ten feet across, and standing no doubt would’ve been twice that high. Its skin was the sickly, glistening white of a creature raised belowground; its body was segmented and striated, like that of a grub. Thick horns of yellow-white protruded from its head on either side, stretching for several feet before curving slightly downward and terminating in two nasty-looking points that scratched the rain-soaked walls. Two rows of six eyes each, milky white in the absence of that trademark demon fire, were wet from rain and tears both. The creature sat with its legs hugged to its chest, rocking back and forth like a child. Its ropy neck flickered like the man-demon’s arm had flickered, indicating skim. In one hand it held a wildflower, brilliant purple in the candlelight.
As it turned its gaze toward me, its awful face broke into a smile.
It extended an arm toward me – an arm that nearly spanned the length of the room – and offered me the flower.
And with a voice as terrible as damnation itself, it said, “Daddy?”
To me – and to Sam – the most chilling aspect of skim is that I can understand its appeal, and even empathize with those seduced by it:
I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like: these fallen angels, these creatures of the Depths, subjecting themselves to human experiences, sensations, emotions, all in the name of feeling closer for a moment to the God that had forsaken them. And I wondered what it must feel like to come down from that, and realize you were once more removed from the light of God’s grace. It must be horrible – a shock akin to their initial fall. It wasn’t hard to see why they – or for that matter, Danny – might get hooked. Why they might keep on coming back.
Call it sympathy for the devil, if you like. I call it my favorite bit.
Chris F. Holm’s work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. HisCollector novels, DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE, recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. You can visit him on the web at www.chrisfholm.com.