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Interview With Kevin Dunn, Author of The Necromancer
Kevin Dunn was born in New York City. He currently lives and works there as a computer analyst for a financial software company. He graduated from Queens College with a B.A. in English. He has been published in several small literary magazines and periodicals. “The Necromancer” is his first novel.
Tyler: Welcome, Kevin. I’m glad you could join me today. I’ve long been interested in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. To begin, will you tell us what about that event captured your imagination enough to write a novel about it?
Kevin: Thanks, Tyler. I’m glad to have this opportunity to discuss my novel. The direct inspiration for the story was the research I had done on the Salem witch hunts for a college essay I had written. I’d been fascinated with the occult since I was in high school, and I was curious about the hysteria of the witch hunts and how such a state of chaos could come to pass. Ultimately, it came down to greed, envy, and possibly ergot poisoning, which has an effect on the body not unlike that of an LSD trip.
Tyler: Will you give us a bit more detail about the historical situation. How people were accused of witchcraft and why and elaborate on the greed and envy part of it?
Kevin: The Puritans didn’t question the supernatural in 1692, and the colony of Massachusetts at that time was a theocracy, so it didn’t take much to raise suspicions. In most societies, you’ll have some people who are not only unpopular but actually loathed by the masses. In Salem, those were the first accused. I suspect it may have started as a prank the girls were playing that got out of hand. Once the hysteria spread, though, some people may have tried to use that to their advantage by accusing a neighbor of witchcraft so they might acquire the neighbor’s property or for other reasons.
Tyler: Now will you tell us about the ergot poisoning? I have not heard of that as part of the situation before.
Kevin: Ergot is a fungus that forms on rye when a severe winter is followed by a quick and moist thawing season. LSD is actually derived from this fungus, and LSD is known often to produce symptoms similar to paranoid schizophrenia. The essay I wrote on the Salem witch hunts, which is posted on my website, goes into this in a little more detail, but one of the sources I used stated that the symptoms of witchcraft are similar to those of convulsive ergotism, a condition caused by ingesting ergot. Those symptoms were typically convulsions and prickly feelings all over the body.
Tyler: In case readers aren’t familiar with the term, will you define “Necromancer” for us?
Kevin: A necromancer is a magician who summons the dead or the spirits of the dead primarily as a means of divination or foretelling the future. In my book, necromancy isn’t really used for this purpose, but for something far more sinister.
Tyler: Why did you choose “The Necromancer” as your title?
Kevin: One of the inspirations for the style of the book was Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” thus the journal entries sprinkled throughout the novel. In coming up with a name for the antagonist, I wanted something appropriate. I also initially wanted to use that name as the title of the book, but I just didn’t think it sounded right. “Necromancer” seemed to capture the imagination, and since an act of necromancy was performed during the course of the story I went with that.
Tyler: I’ve always thought the journal entries in “Dracula,” one of my favorite novels, really made the story effective. What about this technique did you like?
Kevin: I thought it helped perpetuate the suspension of disbelief so necessary for any kind of story to be effective. It also helps flesh out the characters who are writing the journal entries by getting inside their heads in a more intimate way than the omniscient third person narrative typically allows.
Tyler: Why did you choose for the Necromancer to be a minister rather than some other profession?
Kevin: Deception is said to be the Devil’s greatest device, his greatest advantage being that no one believes he exists, certainly less so in a holy man. I’d also seen a foreign film about possessed nuns in a convent doing lewd things to themselves and each other long before I wrote the book. From a psychological viewpoint, it would seem all that repression of our animal instincts would culminate in an explosion of some sort at some point. I love the concept of duality. We all have it to a greater or lesser degree. To deny the elements of good or bad in ourselves completely is to deny our natures. The body and the psyche rebel at some point if deprivation is prolonged enough. I suspect this is at least in part some of the reason for the outbreaks of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. I’m sure that’s been going on long before accounts of such abuse were reported. The necromancer doesn’t start out as an evil man. He is polluted by loss, anger, and the lust for revenge. The forces he taps into when performing magic for revenge infect him with an evil that saturates his being until even the love of his life becomes a target of his fury. The irony is palpable.
Tyler: Is Reverend Blayne based on any historical person or is he completely fictional?
Kevin: Purely a figment of my perverted imagination.
Tyler: Kevin, what was the most difficult part of writing a piece of historical fiction set in this specific place and time period?
Kevin: Without a doubt, it was the research. I would look up words in a dictionary to make sure they were in use at that time. Originally, I even thought of writing all the dialogue in pure seventeenth century English, but that wasn’t practical from any perspective. There were other issues as well. When I wrote the book, I hadn’t been to Salem and wasn’t able to go. I didn’t want to wait on a trip to keep working on the book, so I improvised where necessary. I’d spoken to my father about it, and he said since it’s fiction I could make up anything I wanted to, so I did. I’ve never been to the seventeenth century, either, so I figured what the hell. I also followed the lead of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, and created my own fictitious town. I named it “Angelwood,” and it will definitely appear in future stories.
Tyler:Have you visited Salem since? Was it the way you imagined, or were you disappointed? Did you feel you “got it right” in your book?
Kevin: It’s funny. You know, I’ve been to Boston and other areas of Massachusetts, but still haven’t visited Salem yet. I will try to make it there this year to promote my book, probably around Halloween.
Tyler: What would you say separates your novel from other stories of witch trials in Puritan New England, such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or the more recent film version of “The Scarlet Letter”?
Kevin: I would say the supernatural aspect more than anything else. I don’t focus on the trials since I think that’s been done to death. The story is more concerned with how the people of that time deal with something extraordinary as well as conflicts within and amongst themselves. The novel is filled with action, which moves the story forward quickly. Exploring the details of the trials would have slowed things down too much.
Tyler: Did you incorporate any of the historical people of the period into the novel, and did you find difficulty in doing so?
Kevin: I did incorporate a number of historical people into the story, mostly in dramatizations of actual events, such as the executions of Giles Corey and Bridget Bishop. I didn’t really have much difficulty doing this, but when I was getting started I did struggle with whether I should go further than that. I ultimately decided to do so and wrote Reverend Parris and Tituba into both dramatizations of historical events and fictitious scenes. I think integrating historical characters into a story is a most effective way of further strengthening the suspension of disbelief. That’s probably the biggest challenge in writing a horror story.
Tyler: Your setting is not limited solely to Salem, Massachusetts. Will you tell us about the other places significant to the plot and why you included them in the story?
Kevin: In the flashback chapter where I show how the necromancer turns to the Left Hand Path, I felt it necessary to go back to Scotland. Scotland was especially cruel in their treatment of those accused of witchcraft, so I thought it would be an ideal location where I could depict some of that brutality. London’s East End was where the Jack the Ripper slayings took place, and prostitution was quite prevalent there, even in the seventeenth century. I’m fond of sprinkling my stories with such references. You could add quite a number of footnotes to “The Necromancer.” The mountains in the Walpurgisnacht chapter, for example, while never named in the story, are actually the Harz Mountains of Germany, which were mentioned in Goethe’s “Faust.”
Tyler: Kevin, what would you say are your literary influences? Do they tend more toward horror writers or historical fiction novelists?
Kevin: There are so many. I would say they’re eclectic. I’m an omnivorous reader, so my tastes range from Clive Barker and Stephen King to “The Bible”, “Paradise Lost”, and anything odd. Favorite authors also include Poe, Lovecraft, Andrew Vachss, Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Rimbaud…the list is endless. “The Necromancer” was inspired by a number of different sources, not all of them literary. They include: Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard”; Mercyful Fate’s “Melissa”; Samhain (“November Coming Fire” was the name of one of their albums.); Danzig (I listened to “Black Aria” constantly while writing the novel.); “The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden”; “The Exorcist”(the movie, not the book); numerous books on witchcraft, demonology, and the occult, especially the writings of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. There’s more, but those were the main influences.
Tyler: Why do you think readers today will be interested in a story of the Salem Witch Trials?
Kevin: It’s a timeless story with a number of themes with which I think most people can identify themselves. I personally can’t stomach injustice. You see incompetence rewarded everywhere and honest, hardworking people struggling despite the logic that says otherwise. None of the people executed for witchcraft during the Salem witch hunts were guilty of that crime, not in reality, and not in “The Necromancer.” Look at how Susanna was arrested. She did nothing, but they hauled her ass off to jail because some kid was beating off chanting her name. Doesn’t that just piss you off?
Tyler: What is the reaction you hope readers will have when they have finished reading “The Necromancer”? What do you want them to come away with?
Kevin: A good story will have a message beyond the apparent, but above all else I want my novel to be entertaining. I want people to feel like their time and money were well-invested. I want them to finish the book saying to themselves, “Now that was fucked up.” Then I want them to want more. I’ve gotten that reaction from a number of people who’ve read it, and that puts a huge, wicked smile on my face.
Tyler: What is next for you, Kevin? I imagine you have many more books in you.
Kevin: Certainly a short story collection and books of a more contemporary nature. “The Necromancer” was written to stand alone, though I did leave room for a sequel. I’ve actually been considering it as a series, a kind of Harry Potter for adults, though I’m sure that comparison would be considered repugnant by a lot of people.
Tyler: Yes, I can see where some people would be repulsed by the comparison, but what would you say to the modern-day Puritans who can’t even tolerate Harry Potter because of witchcraft. Obviously, 1692 Salem’s residents would have burnt your book. Why do you think tales of magic and witchcraft appeal to people and are important?
Kevin: Wow. I’d have to say “lighten up” if you can’t tolerate Harry Potter. To be honest, I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, but from what I know of them they seem innocuous enough. The fairy tales of the Grimm brothers are probably far more violent and bloody. Of course, we’ve all been spoon-fed the watered-down Disney versions for decades. Fortunately, you can purchase versions of the stories now that are more faithful to the originals. My book isn’t the only thing 1692 Salem residents would have burned, but thankfully I don’t have to concern myself with that. It all comes down to power and control, something the church has always sought to gain and the Puritans have feared of losing. Believing that witches had powers they couldn’t comprehend terrified the Puritans. If you put yourself in their shoes, you can see how feeling at the mercy of unseen forces could stir up a lot of panic. HP Lovecraft once wrote that the greatest fear is that of the unknown, and he was right. Many stories, including “The Necromancer,” show tangible evidence of magic like summoning demons or fire shooting out of the magician’s eyes, but it can be more terrifying when you believe in that sort of thing and someone’s thrown a curse on you. You’re looking over your shoulder all the time wondering when the axe is going to fall. Every mishap is attributed to the curse, and they start stacking up on top of each other until you seek the help of a witch doctor or drop dead from fright. Most people don’t believe in those things now, but we still like to read stories about magic and witchcraft. People still want to have wonder in their lives, an escape from their mundane routines. There may be more to it than that. It could be a curiosity of how people used to think and what they used to believe, or maybe just a desire to explore the imagination. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t look like the interest will wane anytime soon.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Kevin. Before we go, will you tell our readers about your website and what additional information they can find there about “The Necromancer?”
Kevin: I’d be glad to, Tyler. The website for “The Necromancer” is http://www.thenecromancer.com. You’ll find a description of the book there as well as links to my book at Amazon.com and my publisher, Multi-Media Publications, Inc. The preferred method of ordering is through my publisher’s site. There’s also a link to my main site, [http://www.kevindunnonline.com]. I have a number of photos and miscellaneous writings there, including excerpts from “The Necromancer.” I will be keeping the site up to date as far as news and events are concerned, and I may add some more of my writings in the future, so check back often as I continue working on it.
Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views was glad to be joined by Kevin Dunn, to talk about his new book, “The Necromancer,” Crystal Dreams Publishing (2008), ISBN 9781591460718.
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