Douglas Wynne wrote his first novel as a teen, but his creative path detoured through the music industry before returning to his literary calling. He now crafts dark fantasy that indulges the author’s curiosity in shadowy cults, conspiracies, and the occult, including his SPECTRA Files series (Red Equinox, Black January, Cthulhu Blues), The Devil of Echo Lake, and Steel Breeze, which pitted resilient characters against malevolent forces inciting catastrophe. Wynne’s work flourishes from a postmodern approach to eldritch tales, where elder gods and demons infiltrate the contemporary world and wreak havoc on twenty-first century life, often through song, a devilish way for the writer to remain connected to his musical roots.
Wynne’s latest, the techno-horror His Own Devices, melds technological paranoia, psychological manipulation, and supernatural phenomena, converging in the intricate world of online gaming where a young gamer, a popular YouTube personality, and a struggling mother are entangled in a conspiracy invoked by a cabal bent on chaos. The ambitious story is grounded by complex, relatable characters whose traumas inform their choices, making them vulnerable to the alarming threats mobilizing in the virtual world, and weaponizing their very emotions. The harrowing tale invites deep examination of our contemporary culture, where many have become dependent on tablets and smartphones for education, social interaction, and their livelihoods. Wynne’s tale cultivates chills from the collective anxieties triggered by our devices, conjured by invisible forces conspiring against us.
In light of our recent political history, the premise of His Own Devices is astonishingly timely. Cemetery Dance spoke with Mr. Wynne about technological fears, tenebrous agencies, and the importance of multi-dimensional characters in high-stakes speculative fiction that hits frighteningly close to home.
(Interview conducted by Chris Hallock)
CEMETERY DANCE: His Own Devices deals with frightening events provoked through our technology, but isn’t necessarily anti-internet or against the use of electronic devices. Where do you stand on technology in general? You don’t seem like a Luddite at all, and judging by your online presence, you enjoy engaging with your readers through social media.
DOUGLAS WYNNE: Like a lot of people these days I’m addicted to tech and probably too dependent on it. Which is part of why I wanted to examine that relationship in the book. It’s definitely a love/hate relationship for me. I wrote my first novel with a pen, but these days I’m just as comfortable using voice recognition and Scrivener software. Whatever gets the job done, but I will sometimes choose low-tech tools specifically to avoid distraction. On the one hand, digital technology has empowered me as an indie author trying to reach an audience, and on the other it’s endlessly distracting and interferes with reading, thinking, and writing.
What prompted you to immerse the story in gaming culture? It feels so authentic and detailed. Are you a gamer yourself, or someone in your family? How did you do your research?
The story was mostly inspired by watching my son play Minecraft and becoming enthralled with the whole culture of gaming YouTubers. I absorbed a lot from listening to him and his friends and overhearing way too many hours of that kind of YouTube content. But then I also relied on him as my main fact checker about gaming related stuff in the revision drafts. When he was younger, I worried more about the social dangers that come with a kid interacting with strangers in shared game worlds and chat spaces. And, of course, we had some restrictions on that. He’s thirteen now and I think he has a good head on his shoulders about it. But as a horror-thriller writer, it’s just a habit for my mind to go to the most far-fetched and terrifying paranoid scenarios.
A lot of your work centers around secretive agencies at work in the shadows. Where does your interest in cults, cabals, and other strange factions originate?
I’m not really sure. I think it might just be part of my personality that I’m attracted to mysteries and causes of things that might be secret or hidden. I definitely enjoy those kinds of stories as a reader, where there’s some ambiguity about what’s going on behind the scenes. Like most of my generation, I was a big X-Files fan. But I also read a lot of news, nonfiction, and current events, and there’s no doubt that conspiracy theories have become much more prevalent in recent years. So I’m interested in the psychology of that.
I think when a conspiracy plays to some of our personal biases, it’s easy for most of us to seek comfort in the notion that a chaotic world is actually under someone’s control, even if that someone may have nefarious motives. Somehow that’s more reassuring than the idea that life is random and unpredictable. I think that also has something to do with the inert religious impulses of a modern secular society. In the absence of belief in a supreme being controlling everything, we’re projecting some of those same anxieties onto people who seem to have supernatural powers of wealth and technology.
The story is set in 2016, and I believe your author’s note says you worked on it over a period of a few years. It feels extraordinarily timely, maybe even more so than you anticipated. How did your experience of our tumultuous political landscape over the past four years help shape the story, if at all?
Quite a bit. Writing and editing this book, there was a weird tension between feeling like I had to get it published before the cultural moment changed too much, but also seeing that the longer I worked on it, the more events in the news were moving toward the same themes. The cool thing was when I realized I could keep it set in 2016, which I think of as an inflection point, and steer the final drafts in a way that makes it look like the story foreshadows and sets up everything that we now know happens next.
Minecraft is such an innocuous and adorable video game. Why did you choose it to lay the foundation for the terrifying events that unfold in the story?
There’s something about that juxtaposition of innocence and evil that tends to work in horror, don’t you think? Like creepy dolls or clowns or evil lurking beyond the white picket fence. It’s more unsettling than straight up undisguised evil. So I guess this is a digital version of that. Also, I had been thinking about how shared digital spaces lend themselves to urban legends like Slender Man or Momo and all those creepy pasta stories. And then all of that synched up with a Minecraft urban legend I’d heard — that there was this character roaming the game called Herobrine, who could defy the laws of the game. It was a hoax that some players became terrified of, believing he represented a ghost or a bad omen. That really got my wheels turning.
It’s quite a challenge to meld technology with the occult without seeming hokey or ham-fisted. You keep things fairly ambiguous in this regard, and some details are based on real occult history. How did you come by the supernatural elements that accentuate the story?
That’s always the easy part for me. I’ve been collecting obscure occult books since I was a teenager, so I always know where to reach when I need those details. I like weaving things in that are a little off the beaten path of the typical occult horror clichés.
And I’m glad to hear that the crossover of what’s technology and what’s supernatural comes across as ambiguous. That’s very much intentional. We’ve all become dependent on these forces greater than ourselves that remain mostly mysterious to us. You know that famous Arthur C. Clarke quote about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Programmers probably have a better track record for producing results in our lives than the village shaman or court astrologer did, but we are still uncomfortably aware that they’re in command of powers we don’t quite comprehend. Powers that can probe our deepest secrets and upend our lives. There’s this pervasive feeling that the glowing talisman in your pocket could miraculously change your life for the better at any given moment or utterly destroy it if you offend the wrong gods.
Because of the subject matter, techno-thrillers can often be cold and alienating, but your book is imbued with tremendous humanity, especially the relationship shared between Jessica, Gavin, and Matt. Even Rainbow Dave — who is a catalyst for many terrible things happening in the story — is relatable. How do you go about balancing the characters’ strengths with their flaws when it comes to their actions in the story?
Thank you. I’m always interested in characters first and whatever weird plot device I’m writing about second. And I’ve never met a person who was just one thing; we’re all complicated. I don’t plan much in advance, so I figure if events are driven by character emotions consistent with how they see themselves, (especially if that’s conflicted) then the story will at least have a chance of working out in a way that feels organic and authentic. I also like the juxtaposition of big, catastrophic events with deeply personal motives.
The story is complex and layered, but reads very streamlined and accessible. How did you manage to impart so much information about internet/gaming culture, as well as the psychological operations at play, without compromising the pace? Were earlier drafts larger in scope?
Yeah. It was tricky finding the right balance. The book did go through a lot of revisions. Oddly, I think the technical stuff was pretty streamlined from the start. As with writing occult horror, a little bit of technical detail can go a long way and suggest enough to feel real. If anything, the character development was more cumbersome in the first half in the early drafts, which slowed things down too much for the urgent pacing you want in this kind of book. Finally, at my wits’ end after a lot of rejection, I showed it to my author friend Philip Fracassi, and he was like, “Isn’t this supposed to be a thriller? Cut all this boring shit out and make it fly.” I needed to hear that. And it was good advice because by the time you’re cutting 15,000 words from a final draft, the stuff you’re removing is baked into the rest of the book enough to still enhance the characters.
One of the underlying themes is the toll of fame, experienced through the perspective of YouTube celebrity Rainbow Dave. Were you trying to use his character as a means of examining the rise of demagogues in the digital age?
Yes? And thanks for making me sound smarter than I am! Fame has become accessible to almost anyone with an internet connection, in theory. It seems like the ultimate fantasy to my son’s generation that you could get paid millions of dollars to play video games all day, but there’s always a price. There are always heavy psychological pressures that come with it. And the people who are driven enough and charismatic enough to thrive under those conditions often have some kind of underlying wound. At least, that’s my armchair observation as a fiction writer with no psychological training. My first novel (The Devil of Echo Lake) is about a haunted rock star who deals with some of the same problems.
There’s also a prequel to the book called Random Access, which you’re giving away free to subscribers of your website. How did that story come about?
I didn’t want to resolve all of the questions about the forces controlling Rainbow Dave at the end of His Own Devices. Leaving that somewhat open ended instead of tying it up with a bow felt right to me. But I did have a favorite theory about how he became what he is. An origin story. So when I was looking to write a self-contained novella as a newsletter sign-up reward, I realized that was the perfect vehicle to tell more of the story. It sets up the novel for people who haven’t read it yet, but it may be even more rewarding for those who have already read Devices because of the new clues it drops and some of the blanks it fills in.
Did any particular authors or techno-thriller works inspire your path here?
Not so much in the pure techno-thriller genre, but where it overlaps with horror, yes. Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy was an influence. Paul Tremblay’s novels, which have strong postmodern themes about media, identity, and ambiguity. And on the sci-fi end of the spectrum, William Gibson’s more recent books. I may have also slipped in a cameo by a Joe Hill character. It’s subtle. He knows and hasn’t sent lawyers yet.
What’s in store for you and your readers on the horizon? Any exciting upcoming projects you can discuss?
I just released a horror/noir novella last month with Crystal Lake Publishing. That’s called The Wind In My Heart. It’s an occult detective story with a Tibetan twist. And I’m currently writing some new short stories and thinking about doing a collection. It’s shaping up to be a busy year.