A lot of horror fiction carries the designation of being "a page turner," but with his second project for Mark Waid's Thrillbent comics platform, James Tynion IV is continuing to develop what might be called a "screen swiper."
Debuting today on the Thrillbent app (a $3.99 monthly service) and on Thrillbent.com comes "House In The Wall": a new horror series from the "Batman Eternal" writer with co-writer Noah J. Yuenkel and artist Eryk Donovan. "House" tells the story of 20-something New Yorker Ariel Carpenter as she's slowly drawn into a spectral house that haunts her from behind the walls of her Brooklyn apartment.
The series marks Tynion's second Thrillbent project after the ongoing political horror series "The Eighth Seal" and his most recent creator-owned work. To get an idea of what creeps behind the next page swipe, CBR News spoke to the writer about "The House In The Wall" from its basis in Millennial anxieties to its roots in the haunted house genre and more.
CBR News: James, it was a little over a year ago when you launched "The Eighth Seal" and started with Thrillbent and with creator-owned comics alike. Since then you've obviously had many installments of that digital series under your belt and have been able to do some other creator-owned work. Does that change the approach you've taken with your new series "House In The Wall" and maybe make this a more ambitious offering?
James Tynion IV: I will say that Jeremy [Rock] and I were very ambitious on "The Eighth Seal," and we continue to drive ourselves crazy pushing forward on that. There are more chapters of that story coming. But I feel like there is more of a confidence now. At the very beginning, you're very conscious of the books you're putting out and the kind of writer people see you as. The idea of diving into another big horror series on Thrillbent is something at first I wasn't sure about. But now that "The Woods" is coming out [through BOOM!], I feel like this is the moment. I have more to say, and there are more kinds of horror and scares I want to deliver in the format that "The Eighth Seal" was suited for. So why not invite along a few friends and deliver something that can freak people out?
What was the initial spark for this story and how did it build into its final form?
I'm sure you've noticed that there's a trend right now of horror movies with a haunted house theme – "The Conjuring" being the most recent successful one. It's back in vogue, but it's in vogue in a way that's playing with these tropes we've seen a hundred thousand times. When I noticed this for the first time, I had a long chat with my best friend Noah – who is now my co-writer – about what the core culture fear that's at the heart of this thread. It seems to be an idolization of the past, but also simultaneously, there's the idea that the past sets up the present to fail. So there's a fear of the past – of the past coming back to get you. That's very much a Millennial fear. And as a Millennial myself, it's something I very much understand.
When I was a kid growing up in the '90s, you were told that you could grow up to do anything. You'd go to college and then get a job, and everything would be great. Except we all went to college, and when we got out, there were no jobs! There's no clear direction. While everyone was pointing us on this path to follow our dreams, a lot of us never gained the skills to do anything practical that allows us to accomplish that.
So this story is about a young woman named Ariel. She's in her mid 20s and has been out of school for a few years and still has no idea what she's going to do with her life. Her life doesn't feel real anymore. She's disconnected from it. And that's where this house comes in. She starts having these dreams of this house that feel so much more grounded and real than her day-to-day life. That's what she starts to feel connected to and grounded by, and it terrifies her friends because it feels like she's becoming further and further disconnected from the real world. The series is set in New York, but it's my New York where I hang out with my friends. She lives in a crappy apartment in Bed-Stuy where there are holes in the wall and a jerk of a super. It's all these little problems that keep eating away at her life. That's the grounding for where this came from.
Reading up on the basic premise, I thought of two other things. One was that there seemed to be an element of "Hellraiser" in how she reaches towards this other world that's maybe more frightening than she understands it to be. And the other is a kind of feeling of a classic kids book like the Narnia series, where someone goes through a portal to a magic world. Were things like that influences on you, or are there any specific influences you're drawing from with this story?
It's really interesting that you call those out because I wouldn't have pegged them as direct influences for this story, but [Clive] Barker is one of the most influential writers in my life. The thing I love about him is that he took these tropes and built them into something totally new. That's something so few horror writers are capable of doing. Even some of the best ones. And "Hellraiser" or in particular "The Hellbound Heart" novella that it's based on is an extraordinarily influential book on me. I'm not sure it completely links to this story, but it's a huge influence in general. Now I'm going to have to reread it and see how much of that is in there. [Laughs]
And the fairy tale angle is definitely there. I'm not sure it's there in a literal sense, but we're talking about someone who's in a literal sense of arrested development, and there is something childlike about her fascination with these dreams and her inability to accept reality. That's something once again that I see in my generation right now. People who are in their mid 20s never really grew up in terms of following their dreams and continuing to get lost in them.
As you said, your friend Noah is co-writing this. When you came into comics, you co-wrote with your mentor Scott Snyder, and so in some ways the roles have reversed since you're now the experienced member of the team. Is that strange for you?
Honestly, it just feels natural to me. I love collaboration. And yes, it's sort of the inverse of my relationship with Scott in the sense that with Scott we plot the story together, I take the plot to script and then we kick the script back and forth until we're happy with it. What's happening here is that I plot the story with Noah, he takes it to script and then we kick it back and forth until we're happy. It's always been my process, but now it feels like I can take it to the next level. I love being in that role, and on "Batman Eternal" I'm collaborating with a whole host of writers. So at no period in my career have I not been in a collaborative environment. When Noah and I came up with this story idea together, it was never like "Would it be weird to dive into this?" We just wanted to do it. Noah's been my friend for years, and he was also a college writing major – we went to high school together – and edited the comics page for the paper at UW Madison for four or five years. So I trust his storytelling instincts implicitly in the same way that Scott trusts mine, so it's been a smooth process for us.
On the art side, Eryk Donovan has a cartooning style that at first blush reminds me of Rafael Albuqurque with whom you've worked in the past. What was it about Eryk's style that made you think it would be the right fit for the story you wanted to tell here?
Eryk and I worked together before on the short I did for the "In The Dark" horror anthology that was thrown together on Kickstarter last fall and recently came out from IDW. We did a 25-page story together there, and I think it was when the second or third page came in from him that I wanted to use him for this. Noah and I had already been talking about doing this series, and I'd brought it up with Mark [Waid]. So when Eryk's art came in, I thought, "This could be perfect for what we want. This is the exact kind of style that captures this story." It's a young style with a lot of different influences to it. It has some cartoonish influence to it and some manga in there, but it's closer to contemporary artists like Sean Murphy than it is to classic comics artists. So I feel a kinship to his art, but I also enjoyed working with him. He was absolutely incredible to work with on that first short and on this, so as soon as we started working together I thought, "I need to lock this guy down for as long as possible." [Laughs] Every single page he turns in is better than the last, and I'd like to keep our working relationship going as long as possible.
And we've teamed Eryk up with Fred C. Stressing on colors, and we wanted the colors to look really aggressive. We didn't want to ground it in the real world because I'm doing that so much in "The Eighth Seal" which is darker. This is about younger characters who are the same age as Noah, Eryk and myself. Fred has this almost Argento style where he brings bright colors in at almost the darkest moments, so it's a really cool style.
Doing the digital first comic through Thrillbent almost guarantees that the storytelling is different than a traditional print comic. So how do you open up this series in its first installment?
It definitely has a bit of a slow boil, but there is some horrific imagery right off the back. It starts in a very strange, surreal dream. I wanted the beginning of this series to be unsettling – to shake people up and give them something they're not expecting when they see the title and the character. I want them to ponder where this series is going. Keeping readers on edge can lead to some unsettling stuff, and this is meant to be an unsettling story. These chapters are shorter than my "Eighth Seal" chapters, but it will be coming out bi-weekly. We've got the first eight chapters in the bag already, so I see it more as one big tapestry rather than singular pieces. But there's some messed up imagery coming. I promise.
"House In The Wall" debuts today on the Thrillbent app and at Thrillbent.com