This interview was originally published by The Pulp.
Our generation loves gore. Horror and the horrific. Sordid tales and psychological mindfucks. We address our need for the weird and spooky through video games, movies, and novels. The latter has been around for the longest, but there are writers putting a new spin on the traditional—taking the basics from Stephen King and making them relate more to our generation, how we respond to society, and how our worldview is warped by the way in which we live.
Axl Barnes, a local author and philosopher, addresses all of these issues from the perspective of rebellious teenage youths in his upcoming novel, Odin Rising. Author of the novella Ich Will, Barnes incorporates his impressive background with philosophy into fiction that attempts to deal with the oppression of social systems, youthful narcissism, existentialism, psychological horror, and more. Although difficult to categorize, Barnes’ writing tends to build on his own experiences as a teenager in Romania and the meaning of ethics, life, and death to those too young to fully understand.
We caught up with Barnes to ask him a few questions about his upcoming novel, his influences, and the difficulties of writing outside of one particular genre.
What’s your background? How did you get into writing fiction?
I’m a philosophy and fiction lover. I had my first attempts at writing fiction when in high-school in the late 90s. Afterwards, I only wrote sporadically while studying for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy. Once I got my Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2011 from the University of Alberta, I started focusing exclusively on writing fiction and finally tackling some projects which have been shelved for too long. In 2012, I published a novella, Ich Will, which is about a poor, misanthropic philosophy student who’s unable to pay for his undergraduate degree and whose hatred for society takes an unexpected, bloody turn. Since then, I’ve been working on my first full-length novel, Odin Rising.
What will Odin Rising be about?
It’s about a group of teenage metal-heads in a small Romanian town in the mid 90s. Alex and Tudor, the group’s leaders, egg each other on to progressively more extreme, anti-social actions, from breaking windows and cutting car tires to desecrating graves and sacrificing animals to Satan. Their gruesome competition leads to killing an innocent older man, who just happened to challenge them at the wrong place at the wrong time. The death prompts a conflict between Alex and Tudor, a conflict between their views of what is extreme and the purpose of violence. While Alex is a Neo-Nazi who idolizes Hitler and the Aryan race, Tudor is a self-proclaimed nihilist who hates all races equally and only loves his knife, death-metal, and horror movies. Despite their differences, both youngsters think that they are possessed by Odin, the Norse god of storm and battle frenzy, and who’s awakening in Europe after centuries of slumber. Which one of two will prove himself a hero and join Odin in Valhalla?
When do you aim to have the book finished?
By the end of the year. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
What were your influences in writing this book?
The book is rooted in personal experience and focused on two real-life events, both centered on the river that passes through my hometown. During summer in high school, my grandmother had asked me to take away a cat and drop it into someone’s back yard, as far as possible from her house. She handed me the cat in a sack, stating it was lazy and wouldn’t catch mice. I was with a few friends on that day and, youthful victims of boredom, we decided to take the cat to the nearby river and drown it. I’ll spare the sordid details, but suffice it to say that it’s true that cats have nine lives.
The second event occurred on another empty summer day: two friends, Vali and Lucian, and I got drunk and broke the windows of an abandoned service station. Then we went by the side of the river to drink some more and smoke cigarettes (that was the coolest thing, as we didn’t know of weed or other drugs). An older guy chased us down on his bike to lecture us, threatening to tell Vali’s dad about his vandalism. I remember asking Lucian why we couldn’t just drown the stranger into the river just like we had done with the cat? Lucian didn’t go for it, but what if he had? Or what if I had been drunk enough to just do it myself?
An additional impetus toward writing the book came from reading Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise Of The Satanic Metal Underground, a journalistic account of the Norwegian 90s rash of crimes connected with the black-metal scene. Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Count Grishnackh, a central figure, was involved in many church-burnings as well as the murder of another leader of the movement. In his interviews, Varg argues fervently that his arson wasn’t part of a Satanic ritual, but part of reviving local Nordic pagan religion, and worshiping warrior gods like Odin and Thor, instead of the Jewish Jehovah. In my story, Alex and Tudor are aware and inspired by the events in Norway. Hence also the name of the book, Odin Rising.
What other fiction would you compare Odin Rising to and why?
Mainly Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Meursault, the main character of the novel, is a misfit who commits an apparently absurd crime. The deed puts him in jail, where he has a chance to reflect on the insurmountable gap between him and the rest of society, and to make explicit the meaning of his rebellion.
The first four chapters of Odin Rising are written in a realist, minimalist style, but in the last two chapters the boundary between reality and mythical dreams becomes blurred. In this respect, I was inspired by classic authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, as well as contemporaries like Clive Barker.
My fiction is also very much indebted to popular horror writers like Stephen King, Richard Laymon, and Brian Keene.
Are there any controversial themes in the book? If so, how and why did you approach them?
Teenage rebellion is the main theme of the book. It’s such a widespread phenomenon, ranging from petty vandalism to more serious crimes like school shootings, arson, and suicide. This novel is an attempt to uncover the source of this violence. Why do teenagers think that the adult world is lame and disgusting? Why do they want to mock or destroy it? I tried to see things from their perspective, which also used to be my own perspective, and make explicit their brutal judgment of the adult world.
One thing about the teenage psyche that struck me was the fact that the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for decision-making, practical deliberation, and planning, isn’t fully formed. So, while their intelligence, memory, creativity, and other brain functions are normal, teens don’t care about the future. For an adolescent, everything is here and now—there’s no tomorrow, no career, no insurance of this and that, no pension plans, no happily ever after. And that’s partly why teens are so emotional and restless, because for them everything is at stake all the time. But this psychological condition allows them a deep insight into the nature of the world around them and the nature of society. I think expressing that insight has both artistic and philosophical value.
If you had to describe Odin Rising in an elevator pitch of 10 words or less, what would you say?
It’s an artistic and philosophical exploration of teenage rebellion.
What difficulties have you faced in writing and publishing Ich Will and in the upcoming publication of Odin Rising?
Marketing is the main challenge, especially since my fiction doesn’t fit a specific genre. Both Ich Will and Odin Rising are close to psychological horror, in the sense that the horror is triggered by an abnormality of the main characters’ psychology. However, this categorization misses something essential: my characters end up doing horrible things because they’re in the grips of some philosophical ideas. And those ideas are critically discussed in the context of those stories. So, in a sense, my writing appeals to both readers who enjoy Socratic dialogues, but also to those who like graphic horror and violence. If I were forced to put a label on it, I’d call this genre philosophical horror or existentialist horror. Paradigmatic examples of this are Clive Barker’s chilling short story “Dread,” and its movie adaptation, as well as Scott Bakker’s horrific thriller Neuropath. Still, I hope that a consistent marketing effort through social media and websites like Goodreads will help my fiction reach the right audience.
Odin Rising may still be in progress, but do you have any plans for future work?
I have developed ideas for two more novels. The first one has the working title This Town Must Burn! and features Canadian analogs of Tudor and Alex from Odin Rising. The action is set in a small Western Canadian town in the early 2000s. The youngsters are now in their early twenties and face the overwhelming pressures of adult life. Will they adapt and become domesticated, or will they continue to rebel and burn everything to the ground?
The second novel has the tentative title Defective, and it’s my take on zombies. Jack, the main character, is a young, obese warehouse worker who starts rotting alive: his mind stays fully functional while his body starts decomposing. The story is an account of Jack’s actions, decisions, and psychology in his transition from life to bodily death. While still philosophical, this book will fit well into the genre of body horror.
Both these projected novels will feature one theme that I’ve approached in Ich Will: alienated labour in capitalism. One of the main weapons capitalist society uses to break down and dehumanize its members is meaningless work, or wage slavery. So, in the spirit of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, this will be horror with a political edge.