I played a lot of Oregon Trail as a kid and it honestly gave me a great amount of respect for what the people then were attempting to do. To see your party one after another lose their life to broken limbs, drowning, fever, diseases and being driven to madness after finding giant spider tracks in the snow. Or worst yet being brutally murdered by a mysterious stranger. I may have played a different game them you or maybe I just read the new series “This Hungry Earth Reddens Under Snowclad Hills” or “The Rush.”
Writer, Si Spurrier, has set his new Vault Comic series in “1899, Yukon Territory. A frozen frontier, bloodied and bruised by the last great Gold Rush.” Making the journey out west is Si are creators Nathan Gooden, Addison Duke, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and Tim Daniel. Among the greed and the gold rush a mother searches for her child but also “something whispers in the hindbrains of men, drawing them to a blighted valley, where giant spidertracks mark the snow and impossible guns roar in the night.”
To learn more about this new series, the gold rush and maybe giant spiders, we spoke to creator Si Spurrier. Si discusses what makes horror and westerns work in comics, working in real world horror into fiction, research and more.
A big thanks to Si for taking the time to answer our questions and coming up with one of the best acronyms in comic titles ever. You can hit the trail with “The Rush” this week, October 27th, in your local shop and online. (Editor’s note: Spurrier confirmed after this interview went to press that due to the worldwide paper shortages, the series will now debut on November 3rd.)
In the announcement for the series you said “I’ve been waiting to tell this story for years. At last, a project that lets me fuse together my most persistent preoccupations — myths, the horrors of human desire and the power of stories — with my hitherto unexplored geekiness for history.” What was the original genesis for this story that built over the years into “The Rush”
Si Spurrier: I find stories tend to come together bit-by-bit, like solar systems forming from clouds of gas and dust, rather than like a bolt from the blue. (I think only once in my life has an entire story arrived in mind, featuring plot, character and all. That was “Numbercruncher,” if anyone’s interested.) Scraps of character, thematic interests, nuggets of research and randomisation…
The first asteroid that got caught in the gravity well this time round, was the chance discovery of a dusty old book in a charity shop. A portfolio of the photographs of E.A..Hegg — who happened to be in the right place at the right time to document the Yukon rush.
Picture them, there in sepia and gray…
Prospectors climbing a near-vertical mountain pass, laden with supplies, so tightly packed that if one fell they’d all plummet to their deaths. Men picking their way through the grisly remains of dozens of dead horses, each one overworked until its heart exploded; the result of an injunction by Canadian authorities that nobody could cross the border – for their own good – unless they had at least 1 ton of supplies. An injunction underwritten by a line of Maxim guns set up at the mountain passes. Men, faces bright with hope. Uprooting families and conventional lives on the whisper of a shadow of a rumor. “Gold…” Men riding pitifully inadequate boats down the deadly rapids of the Yukon. Bunko sharps and dancehall girls living like kings and queens, one night at a time, off the outpourings of bonanza-strikers who spent their riches quicker than they’d made them. Haunted faces, bewitched by the insincere promises of the frozen goldfields. Gangsters and killers in the Alaskan ports. Desperate men, scurvied and starving, with disappointment and madness in their eyes. Graves. Endless snow. Sled-dogs killed for their meat. Forests where reality and nightmares collide…
This endless tsunami of pathetic, pitiful stampeders, full of pomp and optimism, pitting their avarice against permafrost, darkness, frostbite, scurvy, suicide and the endless northern wilds.Continued below
One of the many things that makes the last great gold rush of the modern era such perfectly fertile soil for stories is that it’s not just a time and place full of incredible human exploits and insane human dramas. It’s also incredibly well documented. Letters, newspapers, diaries, essays and mobile photographers like E.A. Hegg; thanks to them the Klondike Stampede presents the perfect mix of the unimaginable and the objectively real.
Whenever I talk about a sc-ifi or fantasy project, I often waffle about the importance of recessive worldbuilding. The perfect setup, in my view, is a world which feels functional, because it can then be cheerfully pushed into the background in favor of all the extraordinary human stories that happen within it. A world which looks after itself is the perfect arena for characters who do novel and extraordinary things. Conversely, a world which needs constant explanation – or worse yet, a world whose existence/survival is the point of the story – has no feet on the ground. It’s like a neurotic little woodland creature that needs to be constantly fed, or shot.
Delving into the past is no different. If one chooses to tell stories about incredible human behaviour – let alone incredible inhuman behaviour – one has to build on very solid foundations of verisimilitude. The tiniest detail betrays a faker.
As soon as I started reading about all the amazing stuff that happened during those tortuous years, 1897 to 1899, all those feats of endurance and loss, the cruelty and greed, the venality and murder, and, yes, the goodness and charity, the optimism in the face of horror, the decency as well as the devilishness, it all felt so utterly real, so completely human, that it automatically felt like the perfect bedrock to be building a story about myths, monsters and morality.
“The Rush,” after all, is a story about the only person in the entire Yukon territory who doesn’t give a single loose shit about gold. Nettie Bridger just wants to find her son.
While there is mysterious antagonist present in the series cultivating the horror with the specific setting, is the general horror of the “settling the west” and living in early America play into the series as well?
SS: It’s definitely part of the substrate, yeah. I think the thematic core here is myth vs reality, and – by extension – Wanting vs Having.
America’s a land built on myths. Really really good ones, mostly, but still. Shifting sands. Wanting is a very universal human desire, but I think Having — and, in fact, the act of Being Bold Enough To Take — is quite deeply dyed into the weft and weave of the (white) American psyche. It speaks to thoughtless entitlement, ultimately. The amazing thing being, of course, that humans are actually really shitty at Having. We suck at knowing when we have enough – we just go on wanting – and nine times out of ten what’s really driving us isn’t the idea of Having at all, but the idea of someone else having it instead of me. This, too, I think, is a quintessentially American fear.
Anyway. Comics horror doesn’t do jump scares and “boos” – it endeavours to get under the skin – so it often lends itself to thoughtful and meaty thematic stuff like this. Luckily The Rush is also full of slinking crow-fiends, giant spiders, impossible gunfighters and one vast, horrifying woodland entity at the heart of it all.
When you write a Western, you’re elbow-deep in the blood of mythology and folklore before you’ve even set down a word. No reason to stop there.
I’ve seen you discuss the importance of pace in previous interviews when it comes to effective horror and that seems more important than ever when working with a “mysterious stranger”/creature reveal in your story. How do you juggle pace, reveals and tension while still trying to create an effective first issue?Continued below
SS: Storytelling in comics is – at its purest – an attempt to control the order and speed in which readers digest information. Writers and artists alike are not, in fact, in the business of telling stories: we’re in the business of trying to manipulate readers so that they tell the stories to themselves at just the right pace.
This is also true, more generally, of the horror genre. A good horror – in any medium – doesn’t try to scare its audience; it manipulates them into scaring themselves.
I say this here solely to note that – when you don’t have lazy jump scares in your toolbox – you have to be quite creative with how you disseminate the spookiness. And to illustrate that comics and Horror (the genre, as well as the emotion) really are perfect bedfellows.
The Rush isn’t even an out-and-out Horror in that sense, to be honest. It contains plenty of elements that seem to belong in a scary story – nightmares, monsters, murderers – and I’m keen that it works its way under your skin. But it’s also acutely interested in a sense of place and time, and focuses unashamedly on its core: the pain of a mother whose son is missing.
The Horror elements build up over the series, for sure – and we definitely try to deploy the big beats in a way that feels pacey and hooky – but if folks are just expecting a Monster In The Woods story, they’ll… well, they won’t be disappointed, because we do go there, but they’re gonna find a lot more meat on that bone than they were expecting.
I am the biggest sucker for puns, abbreviations, clever titles, you name it. “This Hungry Earth Reddens Under Snowclad Hills” or “The Rush” is brilliant. What came first in the creation of the title?
SS: Haha, I contrived it with care, so both longer and shorter titles formed together.
I’ve been wanting to do something like this for ages. Apocryphally the current fad for long titles (comics are very much lagging behind prose, in this) pisses off a lot of retailers, so I wanted to do something mischievous that played both sides of the game.
With the tone you are setting with this series the team of artist Nathan Gooden, colorist Addison Duke and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou scream perfect fit. How important have they been to crafting the ideal version of this story and what have they brought to the project that you might not have originally envisioned?
SS: My one and only metric: can I remember how I pictured these scenes when I wrote them, having now seen them in their full illustrated glory?
Answer: nope. Nate and Addison instantly and irrevocably become the world of The Rush. Nate’s flare for switching between highly-rendered Toppi-esque texture and looser impressionistic flourishes; Addison’s total discipline in the arts of understatement and tone. E.A.Hegg couldn’t have rendered it better.
And Hass’s letters have been a revelation. Comics are a graphic medium, for god’s sake — why in the hell have we talked ourselves into this fad for neat, inexpressive chunks of cold modern text when we can be flinging around textures, irregularities, flourishes, accents? Hass gets that.
Apropos what I was saying earlier about recessive worldbuilding? In order for this world to feel real – in order for it to dwindle perfectly into the backdrop – it has to ooze with just the right mix of beauty and filth. All three of these guys are masters of that balance.
The gold rush is a part of history that given its short time frame, exuberance, and myth building does not seem to have an equivalent. It is a very unique short time in history. Have you found exploring the time for this series parallels to current events or recent history to tie into the narrative?
SS: Heh. Ask me this question again when the cryptocurrency bubble bursts…Continued below
And, hey, like I said above: Want is Universal. Having is not. The exercise of one and the pursuit of the other is something that every single human alive can understand. What defines the Yukon Rush, like all the others that came before it, was really just a slight upward exaggeration of these drives. It’s easy to dismiss as mania or mass hysteria, but these were smart and rational people – hundreds of thousands of them – who abandoned their lives and set off on a gruelling quest to make their fortunes on the hearsay and sayso of rumor-mongers and outfit-suppliers.
What’s really astonishing is that most of them, later in life, said they wouldn’t have changed a thing. Despite all the hardship. The disappointment. The grief. Even the ones who MADE fortunes – sometimes several times over – and then lost it all just as quickly… ? Even they agreed that those three weird, tormented years were the best of their lives.
Sometimes when we pursue our Wants we accidentally discover what we Need.
I know a lot of the discussion is often what makes a good horror but westerns are maybe equally built on familiar narrative tropes like horror. What do you feel makes a good western and what have you tried to do with this series to make it work?
SS: Oh fuckaduck, don’t get me started. I could bore you to death with my theories on the Western genre. With any genre, actually. And with the basic inadequacy of genre theory.
(Taster: the Western is at its most redolent when it hosts a tale in which the sympathetic characters’ victory-state helps engender a future in which all the things that make the time and place fascinating have become redundant. In other words, a good Western features a mythical version of History heroically struggling to give birth to the Present, even though it has no place within it. This is like sitting down to watch a fantasy movie whose moral message, after 90 minutes of dragons and wizards, is “embrace unmagical reality.” It follows that Westerns can’t help being tinged by tragedy, because they’re so entirely concerned with their own obsolescence. The good ones lean into this.)
Don’t worry, I won’t chunter on. But a lot of this stuff has been poured into the undercoat layers of The Rush, often in quite a subversive way. You have to have a confident grasp of the cliches and conventions before you can flip the table.
To give just one example, I love establishing this big overarching theme — as discussed above, want and greed and the fear of missing out — then concerning myself with a core character thread that is the complete opposite. Our story’s heroine, Nettie Bridger, is almost completely defined by not being an avatar of the world’s driving preoccupations. While everything and everyone around her is an expression of goldlust — avarice, desperation, hunger for stuff — her drive is far purer. She is a creature of love surrounded by tides of greed.
Where they meet is: monomania.
You have detailed the amount of research and work went into the creation of this series, even referencing first hand accounts, pulling from reference photos and more. What does that sort of research do to build an effective narrative especially one then with a horror twist? I think of Dan Simmons’ “The Terror” which also did this very well.
SS: “The Terror” is a perfect touchpoint, yeah. (I like to describe The Rush, a little reductively, but that’s elevator pitches for you, as Deadwood meets “The Terror.” With maybe a hint of Princess Mononoke too.)
I think I broadly touched on this above. Research is really just a mechanism for ensuring that your world feels as real and functional as possible, so that the stories which are nesting there have resonance and honesty. What’s fascinating (I think) is that the more real your world feels, the more powerfully you can deploy unreal and fantastical elements.Continued below
In my view, the Past is just as much a fantasy realm as any imagined future or lazy sub-tolkienesque magical world. It’s a reality that exists only in people’s minds, whether as the memories of those who were there, or – when there are no survivors left – as the impressions and mental constructions gleaned from testimony. In that light, there’s really no such thing as “factual history”. It’s always colored by bias, exaggeration, faulty recollection or just plain outright lies. No point getting sniffy about that. To me it’s far more incredible that we humans can be so deeply affected by things that we know are fictions, than that we have to pretend anything that touches our hearts and changes our lives must automatically be objective, verifiable truth.
One thing The Terror does very well is to combine the material evidence historians have collected as to the fates of the Erebus and the Terror with joyously invented explanations and mysteries scattered amongst them (Michael Palin’s book about the Erebus is a good roundup of the non-spooky version). Better yet, it does so without lazily othering the indigenous populations which the white characters encounter. I’ve tried to emulate that with The Rush – in fact, I’ve tried to lean even further into it. To have white characters – including our heroine – expressing their ignorant attitudes regarding the “heathens” and their mysterious ways — and to have those views directly challenged.
As we get deeper into our story we have the chance to see a multitude of different characters proposing their theories and Best Guesses for what’s causing the weirdness and horror afflicting the town at the centre of our narrative. Nothing makes me more angry than supposedly clever characters not asking the right questions. I find it always says a lot about a character when you let them express their superstitions. And I kind of love that this particular brand of horror, which is just as much about Mystery as it is about Scares, can take a good hard look at all the things which don’t explain the weirdness, so that the reader’s imagination is working harder and harder to figure out what the hell is going on.
When readers close the page on the last issue of “The Rush” what do you hope they have to say?