EXCLUSIVE Interview: Steve Niles' 'Breath of Bones' - On Golems, The War, And Nice Guys In Horror

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The creator of "30 Days of Night" and "Criminal Macabre" was wary about trying to make a monster story out of the golem. The many different stories about golems (there doesn't seem to be one key golem myth) are often about giving life to a lump of clay and seeing what happens, strange tales tied up in faith, alchemic science, and mysticism. "I've done my take on the Frankenstein myth, on Dracula, vampire, and werewolves, and the golem is always one that seemed really hard to tackle," Niles recently told me by phone "Because it was always so firmly entrenched in Jewish mysticism, it seemed like a hard thing to tell a straight monster from."

But even after getting several short stories about the creature out of his system, Niles couldn't quite exorcise the golem from his mind, ultimately teaming up with artist Dave Wachter ("The Hell-Bound Train") to bring to life his WWII-set miniseries about Jews enlisting the aid of the creature to protect them from the Nazis.

I asked Niles about the golem as a reverse-monster, something that might seem like a monster that is created by or has to do battle with human monsters. Niles confessed that that was one of his favorite themes in horror, misunderstood creatures serving as allegories about the worst in humanity. Saying that he's a huge "Frankenstein" fan, he added "The golem story lends itself to that even more--it's a creation of man often seen as a monster, but when push comes to shove, the golem is a protector." Going back to the "Frankenstein" comparison, the monster is an abandoned child in Niles' mind (and most estimations of Shelley's novel), while the golem is a creature intended to protect the weak and the innocent from monsters.

BOBATG #1 FC FNLThe first issue looks at a tiny village where all of the men have gone off to fight the Germans, leaving only the elderly, children, and women to fend for themselves. An English pilot comes crashing into their lives (literally) and the introductory issue sets up a crises where these people can either give up their unwanted guest or find some means of protecting him (and themselves). Our POV character is Noah, who we learn at the start of the issue will himself have to face monsters on the battlefield, but as a boy is torn between the ideals of his faith and the pragmatism of his grandfather.

The first issue gets off to a deliberate start: there's no golem to speak of in those first few pages, but Niles says he couldn't bring himself to start with an explosion. "Really what the story is about is a grandfather teaching his grandson how to survive in this world," he says, adding that as the miniseries progresses, we'll see Noah having to mature far rapidly than a young boy should have to. But for the first issue, it was about setting this world up and establishing its characters. "The golem just wasn't going to work if we didn't understand the circumstances" (Niles says that he's also planning for the trade, so "Breath of Bones" is a story that would read more effectively as a collected work--he's looking forward to do more standalone works).

I did want to pick his brain about the state of horror and the increasing trend to mix it with other genres over and over. I pointed to Niles' own "Criminal Macabre," asking if this cross-pollination might not lose the purity that comes with setting out to simply scare the audience ("Criminal Macabre" is a success on this front, but there are any numbers of "monster plus genre" attempts that are more Mad Libs combinations that actual stories). Niles isn't concerned, saying he wishes there was more of this kind of mixing going on. "Westerns lend themselves perfectly to horror and I'm surprised there aren't more of them," he tells me, offering his favorite underrepresented setting for horror. He says that when writing "30 Days of Night," he had to find a location that was isolated, leading him to think that westerns' inherent isolation of small towns and outposts would lend themselves perfectly to horror. He offers "Shock Waves," the 1977 thriller with Peter Cushing and an island of zombie Nazi soldiers or "An American Werewolf in London" as examples of this kind of intermingling of genres that yield excellent stories.

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It all comes down to setting: Niles and I spent a couple of minutes talking about the pure pleasure of "Alien" as haunted house movie in its back third, and that likewise, he needed to find a place in Eastern Europe to set his monster story against the backdrop of war.

Typical of my conversations with horror creators, I asked what got his blood pumping with fear--he cited a shot in the original BBC production of "The Woman in Black" as a moment that scared him in film, but it's the mundane that gets him the most (a common response from filmmakers and horror writers). Niles says that open water and crowds cause him no end of anxiety. He sees the same thing in other horror creators he's dealt with in the past: "Every horror guy I meet--I've worked with John Carpenter, George Romero--I've been lucky enough to meet many, many of these guys and they're all the nicest guys. The horror guys seem to get it out of their system and they're the nicest guys in the world."

I asked Niles what it was like working with Carpenter, and their collaboration on the game "F.E.A.R. 3" for Monolith, what Niles described as a "really fun experience," his first video game writing gig. Although he spent some time working on online content for Disney Interactive, he was able to write the script for the horror first-person shooter, although he laments that he and Carpenter were brought in kind of late in the process, after much of the game's development had been completed. "They were building it, they already knew what the levels were going to be. What we tried to do was come in and make it a little scarier," he says, explaining that his and Carpenter's job (the "Halloween" filmmaker directed the cutscenes) was to refine some of the sequences and inject some horror into them. In spite of the process, Niles says he enjoyed the project (even if he was slightly constrained by the developer's inability to create any new assets).

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Niles invited Carpenter onto the project after a film project they were working on together fell through, "The Upturned Stone," a contentious production based on a comic that ultimately fell through after Niles was fired off of the production and Carpenter subsequently walked at Dimension. "Sometimes the simplest stories are the hardest ones to get through development," Niles says, "the single toughest thing for writing horror is that a lot of times people want you to explain everything." Niles says nothing kills horror faster than having to explain everything, and that the producers on "The Upturned Stone" and Niles frequently clashed over what would be explained in the story and how.

"Breath of Bones" will be available from Dark Horse on June 12.

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