“The Man Who Carved Skulls” was first published in Weird Tales (2007). Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired this story?
Most cultures want to memorialize, if not actually venerate, those who have died, and we do it mostly with cemeteries. But in an agrarian society with a limited amount of arable land like the one in my story, wasting so much valuable farmland on a graveyard makes no sense. I considered all the cultures that preserve their dead in such a way as to keep them visible and, in a way, part of the living community, and combined that with a society with an almost instinctive need to make the best use of space and resources. In that context, the role of the skull-carver made perfect sense.
All that sounds coldly calculated, but in truth the rationale came mostly after the fact. I had an image in my head of an elaborately carved human skull, and worked backward until I had the context that would have produced it, and thus the story. A lot of my stories come from a seed image, rather than an “idea” as such.
You noted elsewhere that “in his introduction to The Ogre’s Wife, my first collection of stories, Parke Godwin says my themes are ‘. . . the nature of our humanity and the inescapability of what we are, the choices we make and the price we pay for each, right or wrong.’” “The Man Who Carved Skulls” seems like an excellent example: Why do you think this theme is still so compelling for you?
If you don’t believe in either fate or predestination—and I don’t—then we’re left with the inescapable fact that what we do matters. That is, actions almost by definition have consequences. Choosing A excludes B. Maybe A was the right choice, made for the right reasons and the best will and information to hand. That doesn’t mean that all the effects of that choice are going to be good. Sometimes the best you can do is to take the least destructive course of several bad options, but you’re still not excused from making that decision, nor from the consequences of it. That’s at once empowering and scary as hell. Akan can choose not to help fulfill his father’s promise or his mother’s greatest wish, and who would have blamed him? Maybe he would have been happier that way. Maybe it would have destroyed him. Akan drew his own conclusions, and acted accordingly.
This story’s setting is rich in culture and theology, with an unusual funeral custom. What can you tell us about the creation of this world?
When it came time to write this story I had a bit of a head start, because the world Akan inhabits already existed. I first wrote about it in a novel called A Warrior of Dreams. The culture is based on a premise you’ll find in Hindu mythology, among other places, that what we call the universe is simply a god’s dream. In this case, it’s the dream of a goddess named Somna, with a lover/antagonist called Gahon who is forever trying to wake her up so she can pay attention to him. The catch is that he has to do this from within the dream itself without letting Somna know that he’s the one who did it—she’s rather fond of this dream. All magic in this universe requires the manipulation of the fabric of the dream itself, which makes it an extremely dangerous thing to do, much to Gahon’s delight. In this story, we meet Gahon in the temple scene.
You explore the themes of love, loyalty, and promises. Akan makes a difficult choice and pays a high price for it. Are choice and consequence ideas you tend to explore in your fiction?
Constantly, and no doubt because they are issues I’m still trying to get a handle on myself, touching as they do on both the notion of free will versus destiny and how we at once fear and hope for a rational universe. People say the only certainties of life are death and taxes, but I’d add choices and consequences. All choices have consequences. Whether they are good or bad depends entirely on our perspective, but regardless of the outcome, we are not excused from making those choices. The problem is that we are very seldom aware of the actual consequences beforehand. We like to think we make informed decisions about our lives and careers and our relationships with others, but in truth most of the time we’re flying blind.
“. . . best not to leave the choosing of your bride to chance. That gives the Forces of Gahon too much room to play.” Does this line foreshadow the outcome of Akan’s night at the temple?
It’s a tenet of this society that “chance” is the thread from which Gahon weaves his traps. So they tend to be a little regimented in their outlook, or at least try to be, to avoid doing anything that gives Somna’s Adversary room to work. The irony of Akan’s night in the temple is that he meets Gahon instead of Somna, but at the same time Gahon doesn’t “trick” or mislead him. He simply tells Akan what he already knows, but doesn’t want to acknowledge.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?
Only that I hope the readers enjoy it. As for what happens next, I’ve got a few things in the pipeline. Prime Books just brought out the first Lord Yamada Collection, Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter, in January, and PS Publishing is scheduled to release the first Yamada novel, To Break the Demon Gate, in November. I’m currently at work on the second Yamada novel, which I hope to have finished by early next year.
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