I’m thrilled that my guest this week on The Scariest Part is my good friend Chandler Klang Smith! Chandler and I met years ago when we both had books out from ChiZine Publications. She’s been a close friend ever since, and a writer whose skillful prose and boundless imagination I admire. Her new book is the dark, satirical SF novel The Sky Is Yours. Here is the publisher’s description:
In the burned-out, futuristic city of Empire Island, three young people navigate a crumbling metropolis constantly under threat from a pair of dragons that circle the skies. When violence strikes, reality star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, the spoiled scion of the metropolis’ last dynasty; Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, his tempestuous, death-obsessed betrothed; and Abby, a feral beauty he discovered tossed out with the trash; are forced to flee everything they’ve ever known.
As they wander toward the scalded heart of the city, they face fire, conspiracy, mayhem, unholy drugs, dragon-worshippers, and the monsters lurking inside themselves. In this bombshell of a novel, Chandler Klang Smith has imagined an unimaginable world: scathingly clever and gorgeously strange, The Sky Is Yours is at once faraway and disturbingly familiar, its singular chaos grounded in the universal realities of love, family, and the deeply human desire to survive at all costs.
The Sky Is Yours is cinematic, bawdy, rollicking, hilarious, and utterly unforgettable, a debut that readers who loved Cloud Atlas, Super Sad True Love Story, and Blade Runner will adore.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Chandler Klang Smith:
Midway through my new novel The Sky Is Yours, one of the main characters, an immature young man named Duncan Ripple, runs away from his family and the mansion where he grew up, only to find himself lost and alone in the mean streets of his fiery dragon-plagued city. In these uneasy new circumstances, the first figure he encounters is a mysterious fireman. Along with his peaked helmet and yellow slicker, this stranger wears an ancient, stained gas mask that conceals his identity.
I knew I wanted this juncture in the plot to signal a transition, to show that Ripple could not go home again. There’s an entire subgenre of horror concerned with coming of age: the babysitter who discovers the phone calls are coming from inside the house, the couple on a date who find the escaped convict’s hook-hand embedded in their car door. These monsters don’t hide under your bed; they wait out there, in the world, and escape from them is temporary at best. The only retreat is back into childhood, where your parents can still protect you, a realm where none of us can safely stay forever.
Introducing the character first as “Leather Lungs” — a nickname derived from the “mask of hose and hide” that conceals his features — I framed him as the subject of an urban legend in the city, the big bad of scary stories Ripple has heard a million times after lights out in boarding school, furtively whispered lest they summon him. In these stories, Leather Lungs appears behind you, in the half-fogged mirror. He looms at the foot of the bed when you awake with sleep-bleared eyes.
At this moment in the novel, though, he intrudes in full force, into the stark reality of midday.
I was pleased with Leather Lungs’ first appearance, but even after he was unmasked, I wanted him to retain some of the dread he initially instilled. What lurked beneath that snozzled hood? My inspiration for the answer came from an unlikely source: the fate of the puppet star of one of my favorite movies as a kid. These images of Hoggle from the Labyrinth, his face flayed of its vinyl sheathing, animatronics laid bare, lingered in my mind for longer than you might expect.
The idea of a face (especially a beloved face loaded with empathetic associations from my earliest repeat film viewings in childhood) stripped down to its mere machinery struck me as oddly chilling. The “uncanny valley” trips a wire in our brains. It tells us, “This creature is manipulating your instincts. Don’t trust them blindly! You have to use your head.” But what if the uncanny valley lies just beneath the surface of someone we used to know? Without giving too much away, I decided to place Ripple in the position of making this judgment call for himself, in order to show the abrupt way he’s thrust into forging his own alliances and managing his own destiny in the world.
I’m not a horror writer per se. But horror plays a role in every story I find worth writing, because it plays a role in every bold shift and transition a character can make in life. We encounter monsters, or we become them; we shed our flesh a little each day. We’re doomed to die — we don’t know what is coming for us, but it’s coming. One of my favorite writers, Thomas Pynchon, writes, “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death.” Horror, as a genre and as an emotion, takes death seriously because it leaves us with no way out. It brings the unknown too close for comfort. It gets under our skin.
A graduate of Bennington College and the creative writing MFA program at Columbia University, Chandler Klang Smith is the author most recently of The Sky Is Yours (Hogarth/Crown). She has worked in book publishing, as a ghostwriter, and for the KGB Bar literary venue. She is serving as a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards for the second year in a row and teaches and tutors in New York City.