The “Premature Burials” is a bit different, in that it’s a story that gives us a few protagonists. What drew you to tell a story about playing dead? Was the unconventional aspect of the couples’ domestic life something that sprang up organically, or was it baked in from the outset?
By my count, the story has three protagonists (Matthew, Charity, and Sterne) and three viewpoint characters: Matthew (close third person), Sterne (close third person), and the omniscient narrator who intervenes twice to dryly summarize things. Now that I think about it, though, that omniscient narrator could be read as Sterne, too, keeping himself in the background while his employers occupy center stage. Certainly Sterne is as close to omniscient as anyone about goings-on in the Preble-Gorce household; he misses nothing. I remember deciding against making Charity a viewpoint character, because I thought her unexpected reactions to things were the funniest part of the story, and would be funnier if viewed from outside, as it were.
As for the couple’s “domestic life,” the story was inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale “The Three Snake-Leaves,” in which a beautiful but strange princess makes the outrageous demand of all her suitors that they be buried with her upon her death, whether they’re dead or not. One suitor bravely marries her anyway and dutifully reports to the crypt when the princess abruptly dies, but he brings her back to life with the titular magic leaves. Alas, the princess isn’t the same after that, and brings the prince only grief. The Grimms’ tale could be read as a cautionary story about not wishing people back from the dead—like W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
I didn’t want my story to be that dark, so I decided my princess wasn’t quite dead after all—which immediately took the story into the realm of comedy—but I knew she wouldn’t readily forgive Matthew’s perceived disloyalty, either. Burying both of them again seemed the obvious way to resolve the plot, or obvious to me, anyway. The Grimms’ princess is pretty kinky to begin with, so to push the kink even further seemed a natural escalation. Couples who can’t stop fighting are stock comic characters, but couples who can’t stop fucking are pretty funny, too.
You’ve worked in a variety of mediums. I’m always curious to know if a multi-genre author like yourself knows whether his material will be a short story or novel. In this case, how aware were you “The Premature Burials” was a short work? Do you have a preference for shorter or longer works?
I knew “The Premature Burials” would be short, in part because my models were short—the Grimms’ “The Three Snake-Leaves,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” and James Thurber’s “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife”—but also because the guiding conceit would have worn mighty thin even stretched to novelette length, much less novel length. I knew I had only to bury Matthew and then to exhume him, The End. The only reason I added a third character, Sterne, was purely practical: Once Charity and Matthew were both buried, who would dig them up?
My preference, as a writer and a reader, always has been for short forms over long forms, but for whatever reason, my stories keep getting longer. Like all my early stories, this one strikes me now as remarkably concise. But an unknown writer often has to be more concise than a well-known one, because she hasn’t earned the editors’ patience yet, and committing a big chunk of the budget to a newcomer is a big gamble.
The setting is lush for this story; lots of dark-seeming nooks and crannies to be mischievous; lots of potential for intrigue and darkness, but a lot of play as well. I know it was 1998, but do you recall what informed the setting?
Only one setting in the story was inspired by my own experience, and that’s the cemetery. I had firmly in mind the Sauk City, Wisconsin, cemetery where Arkham House founder August Derleth is buried. I believe it’s the St. Aloysius Cemetery. I had visited it with my then-girlfriend, on a sort of pilgrimage. I was struck by the wrought-iron arch and by the hair-raising “holy and wholesome” sign (which is a quote from 2 Maccabees 12:46, by the way). “You have to use that in a story,” my girlfriend said, and she was right. As for the mansion’s interiors, I just imagined the set from the sitcom The Addams Family—which is one of my formative TV influences, easily the equal of Star Trek, and just behind The Twilight Zone.
What’s next for you, Andy Duncan?
My new story “Santa Cruz” will be in the Kickstarter anthology Genius Loci, edited by Jaym Gates, from Ragnarok Publications; and I will teach the third week of the 2016 Clarion writers’ workshop at UC-San Diego. The application deadline is March 1, and here’s the link: clarion.ucsd.edu/workshop.
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