What Screams May Come: A Conversation with Tim Waggoner

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

The Atrocity Engine (Custodians of the Cosmos Book 1) by Tim Waggoner
Aethon Books (April 30, 2024)

The Synopsis:
Men in Black meets Hellraiser in this rollicking mash-up of urban fantasy and cosmic horror from four-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tim Waggoner.

cover of Atrocity EngineCreatures from dark dimensions infesting your home? Demonic beings trying to drive you insane? Alien gods attempting to destroy your universe?

Just call Maintenance.

This underpaid and overworked secret organization is dedicated to battling forces that seek to speed up Entropy and hasten the Omniverse’s inevitable death.

Neal Hudson is a twenty-year veteran of Maintenance. A surveyor who drives through the streets of Ash Creek, Ohio, constantly scanning for the deadly energy known as Corruption. Since the death of his previous partner, Neal prefers to work alone, and he’s not happy when he’s assigned to mentor a rookie.

But they better learn to get along fast.

The Multitude, a group of godlike beings who seek to increase Entropy at every opportunity, are creating an Atrocity Engine. This foul magical device can destroy the Earth, and they don’t care how many innocent lives it takes to build it. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot!)

Just another day on the job…

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Congrats on your upcoming novel, Tim. Before we dive into The Atrocity Engine (Custodians of the Cosmos Book 1), I want to ask you about something a little more generalized. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to ascertain that because “Book 1” is placed in the title likely means this is going to be part of a new series for you. I would love to have you walk us through your state of mind from the initial idea to writing the first book of a new series, and to compare it to the mindset of finally putting the pen down after completing the final draft of a last book in a series.

TIM WAGGONER: In 2016, I wrote a horror/dark fantasy novel for DarkFuse called Eat the Night, and the entropy-fighting organization called Maintenance debuted in that story. Over the years, I’ve woven various novels of mine into a shared mythos, and I added Maintenance to the mix, mostly just mentioning them in passing. When the COVID lockdown hit, I had a good deal of extra time on my hands, and I began to wonder if I could use my mythos in an urban fantasy/adventure novel. The theme of much of my horror fiction –– including my mythos –– is that, if the universe is doomed to eventually succumb to entropy, what’s the point of anything? And for individuals, what’s the point of living if we know we’re going to die? How do we find a way to live in the face of this reality? Heavy stuff, and I didn’t know if I could fuse that with the lighter aspects of an adventure story. I wrote about 90 pages of The Atrocity Engine, then deadlines for other projects reared their ugly heads, and I turned my attention to them.

A couple years went by, and I remembered The Atrocity Engine partial and decided to send it to my agent to see what she thought of it. She liked it, told me to write an outline for the whole book, then come up with ideas for two follow-ups. She sold the trilogy to Aethon Books, so I had to finish The Atrocity Engine, then get to work on the other two books in the series –– Book of Madness and The Desolation War. I turned in the third book to my editor just last week.

Because so much time had passed between starting The Atrocity Engine and resuming work on it, it took me a while to build momentum, but I finally managed to get going on it. The second and third books were even harder to get into. For some reason, whenever I’ve written a series, I find the follow-up novels harder to write. I’m very conscious of trying not to repeat myself, and I try to add new elements to the overall world and further develop the characters.

The Desolation War was even harder because it needed to wrap up the overall story –– and I had to take a break halfway through to write a tie-in novel. I think I did a decent job on The Desolation War, but I’ll have to wait to see what my editor thinks!

Do series in general demand you take a different approach to them compared with a standalone story? I imagine, for example, there might be more notes for continuity purposes…

Continuity is a huge issue. I had a series bible I consulted constantly and which I added to as I wrote. I don’t outline in massive detail before I write, and I sometimes forgot something I wrote in Book 1 –– such as a main character’s origin story –– and then write a different version in Book 2. My editor didn’t catch that mistake, but when I went over proofs of Book 2, I did, and I was able to make sure the character’s background was consistent. As I mentioned earlier, I had to show the characters’ growth throughout the novels, and I had to up the ante in each book and make sure the trilogy told a single coherent story while also being able to read as standalones if people wanted. Quite the juggling act!

Okay, time to rev up and steer this conversation into The Atrocity Engine. Being a big fan of both the Hellraiser and the Men In Black series, I’m sure I won’t be alone in raising an eyebrow at your book being considered a mash-up of the two. Was this always your intention or did it just end up that way?

As I said earlier, my intention was to take my dark mythos and fuse it with an urban fantasy/action adventure. Later, when I was trying to come up with promotional copy for the book, the tagline “Hellraiser Meets Men in Black” came to me. I’d written two other urban fantasy series –– Nekropolis and Shadow Watch –– and I fused dark elements with humor and adventure in those novels, so it was natural for me to do the same with The Atrocity Engine and its sequels. There’s a touch of Ghostbusters in it, too. I love the way the Ghostbusters treat their adventures as another damn job to get done, so they can go home and kick back. I wanted to give my Maintenance agents that same kind of attitude. They’re overworked, overstressed, and underpaid.

With reference to Hellraiser and MIB in mind, what do you tell readers curious about the ratio of shock, terror and comedy in The Atrocity Engine?

10% shock, 20% terror, 20% Hhumor. The rest of the book is comprised of 30% action and 20% character development (although the humor is usually part of character development, too). Unlike in some of my standalone horror novels, there are no erotic horror elements in the series, so it’s unlike Hellraiser on that score!

Of course, let’s not forget about the cosmic horror element of this one either. Personally, I love that this genre of ours invites so many possibilities for blending and mixing other genres and subgenres to bend to the will of whatever dark story needs to be told. Despite all the freedom you get from infusing so many genre layers into the worlds you create with such books as The Atrocity Engine, are there any challenges or aspects of pulling it off well that might not be so easily assumed?

Blending all the disparate elements in a way that seems completely natural is a big challenge. Trying to keep the story grounded on one hand while having a large cosmic element is another. Books like these are a balancing act, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to get the balance right each time.

On top of the movie franchises already mentioned, this one also has a buddy element that we’ve seen to mixed effect in so many films where a grizzled old guard is forced to partner up with a fresh-faced rook who only seems to get in the way. What does this element add to your story, and why does it seem so easy to screw up such a device in storytelling, at least on screen?

There are two main characters in the series. Neal Hudson is a fortysomething veteran who does what he thinks is right, regardless of the possible impact on his career. Gina Sandoval is in her early twenties, and she’s freshly out of training and eager to start her first job as a full-fledged agent. They both have emotional baggage. Neal’s last partner died on a job a couple months ago, and he’s still grieving her loss. Gina’s family are famous as super-agents in Maintenance –– so she’s got a lot to live up to –– and they also have a reputation for being more than a bit shady. Plus, her father Amador was Neal’s mentor when he was first starting out. I wanted there to be a thematic undercurrent of family –– and family tension –– in this series. I also wanted to depict a true friendship between a man and a woman without there being the slightest indication of romance between them. I wanted to see how the story developed without relying on that cliché. 

I think the buddy element fails when it’s depicted as constant antagonism between the characters that suddenly morphs into grudging respect and then a finely tuned partnership for no reason other than that’s the story structure. It doesn’t come as a natural outgrowth of the characters and their development.

Another major element of The Atrocity Engine seems to be one of existential crisis in which the fate of the universe if not all universes is at stake. I imagine it has to be a hard balance between not overshadowing the fun factor with such serious notions while also making sure you handle the existential portion of the story in a way that can be taken as serious as you intend for us to take it, which I’m guessing is a lot.

Yep! But humans often use humor to deal with huge existential issues, so in that way, the combination of the two is a natural fit. Humor is a buffer that makes it easier –– or maybe I should say more comfortable –– to deal with the most difficult questions of existence. It’s like looking at an eclipse indirectly so you don’t damage your eyes 

I’ve heard a lot of readers make similar claims that they won’t start a series until they know the last one has been published because they’ve been burned before with either publishers going belly up or authors who just haven’t gotten around to writing the last book (Cough cough Game of Thrones cough cough). Tim, at this stage in your career, do you put any certain measures in place to ensure whatever series you start will indeed be completed and available for readers anticipating the whole package?

I try to make sure that the books could be read as standalones and that they each have a solid ending, even if there’s a hint that there’s more to come in the next book. But having all three novels finished before the first was released was something my publisher wanted to do. They wanted to release the books relatively close together for marketing reasons. It’s the first time I’ve done this, and I’m interested to see how it’ll work.

This might be a bit of a tougher question for you to answer. After attending a writing workshop at last year’s Scares That Care Author Con 2, and taking in so many golden nuggets you had to share about the art of crafting quality stories that sell, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t much about the craft of writing you don’t know about. You’ve certainly had a prolific and long-running career in teaching and walking the walk to learn the ropes, to say the very least. That said, what do you feel is an aspect of writing you yourself might struggle to perfect and, if anything comes to mind, what does your process of improving this aspect look like?

author Tim Waggoner
Tim Waggoner

I always struggle between writing something that pleases me artistically vs. writing something that’s marketable. I’ve worked hard over the years to develop my own kind of weird, surreal horror fiction, but that kind of fiction will always have a small(ish) audience. Sometimes I consider trying to write something more mainstream, not because I want more readers or more money (although I’ll take as much of both as I can get), but because I want to know if I could do it. So I swing back and forth between the two extremes, and I work on different ideas, write up various proposals, but I usually end up coming down on the artistic side of things in the end, so I guess that’s what I really want to do most.

To kind of piggyback off that last question, are there any additional ways you’re hoping to push yourself creatively such as telling stories within a different sub-genre, style, environment or otherwise you’re looking forward to focusing on? Or maybe you don’t even think in those terms?  

I try different things all the time. Right now, I’m in the early stages of working on developing a horror videogame, and my last book on writing horror, Let Me Tell You a Story, was a hybrid of how-to-write, a story collection, and memoir.  Over the last couple years, I’ve written several on-spec projects –– a psychological thriller called Pretty Like Butterflies, a middle-grade horror novel called I Scream, You Scream, and an extreme horror novella called The Suicide Plague. (With the latter, I wanted to see if I could write extreme horror that’s ultimately uplifting.) My agent is still shopping these projects around, and hopefully they’ll find a home soon. Last year I wrote twenty thousand words of notes for a fantasy novel, and this afternoon, I played around with the idea of turning those ideas into a science fiction setting. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir about my life in horror, too. Maybe I’ll get around to it one of these days.

Aiming the spotlight back on The Atrocity Engine, does anything jump out at you about the way this particular story came together that you’re most proud of?

I think using my mythos for a lighter type of story worked better than I thought it would. The Atrocity Engine and its sequels take place in the same world as many of my darker horror novels –– they even share some characters –– but they’re so different in terms of style and tone that I don’t want them to cross over too much. What’s weird is that my next Flame Tree Press novel, Lord of the Feast, comes out two weeks before The Atrocity Engine. (This is what happens sometimes when you write for different publishers.) Lord of the Feast uses the same mythos as The Atrocity Engine, but they’re like different sides of the same coin, one lighter, one darker. It’ll be interesting to see what people who read both think of the contrast.

I recall you mentioning –– and please correct if I’m off in any way –– that in order to know you’ve got the makings of a novel to write out, you need at least two or three subplots to start with. I imagine you can’t just put any ‘ol subplots together and expect them to work. What can you tell us about the subplots of The Atrocity Engine and why you knew they would work so well, blended together in this story?

I’m never sure that anything I do in a novel will work! A lot of it I do by instinct. In The Atrocity Engine, the main antagonist is Rachel Blackburn. She’s undergoing her “final exam” to join the Multitude, a cadre of powerful dark entities that want to speed up the end of existence. So there are personal stakes in her efforts to construct and activate an Atrocity Engine. Neal’s loss of his previous partner not only makes it hard for him to accept a new one (one who could conceivably also die in the line of duty) but it’s also a real way for him to confront death/entropy. Gina’s issues with her famous –– and possibly criminal –– family make it harder for her to establish her own professional identity. And her father being Neal’s mentor makes Neal and Gina’s new working relationship more awkward for them both. I find the more I can connect various characters to each other and give them personal connections to aspects of the main plot, the more effective my subplots are.

After kicking open the gates of 2024 with this novel, what else are you most excited about for the remainder of the year, and how can we best follow along?

My new story collection, Old Monsters Never Die, should be out from Winding Road Stories this year. My novelization of Terrifier 2 should be out in 2024 as well. I had a blast writing that book, and I can’t wait for people to read it!

The best place to keep up with all things TW-related is my website: www.timwaggoner.com. It has links to my blog, my YouTube channel, and my social media.

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