Alasdair Stuart writes for Bleeding Cool
The new Crossed: Wish You Were Here interlude chapter has just gone up.
Crossed remains one of my favorite end of the world stories, for two reasons; the unrelenting horror of it and the moment in the original mini-series where, just for a second, everything stops. It's an incredible storytelling beat, a moment of absolute silence that hits you like nothing else because it's so unlike everything that's gone before. It's perfect, and made all the more perfect by how fleeting it is.
I've been fascinated to see how subsequent series have unpacked the concept, with David Lapham's Family Values and Psychopath matching the Crossed against the worst uninfected humanity has to offer, Crossed:3D playing with high concept action movie tropes and Garth Ennis' return to the series, Badlands, exploring the mind numbing horror of surviving when so few other people have.
To my mind though, Wish You Were Here, Si Spurrier's Crossed webcomic, is the most consistently ambitious, horrifying and successful of the follow up series. The story of a small group of survivors on the tiny island of Cava, off the coast of Scotland, it's a very British apocalypse, as much about the horror of surviving with people you dislike as the imminent threat of horrifically violent death. The first print collection is scheduled for release in September and with pre-orders closing today, I talked to Si about the influences on the series, whether hell really is other people and exploding cows.
What influenced Wish You Were Here?
It was one of those concepts which grew, step-by-step, out of a series of contemplations about how I should approach the gig. I'd read Garth's Crossed masterpiece – as should everyone – and when Avatar asked me to write my own series set in the same world I had to make some quick decisions. I didn't want to write something deliberately and persistently icky with nothing else to it – Garth's story transcended accusations of gory/rapey/porny gratuitousness with intelligence, humour and emotion, and I was determined to do the same. To my mind real horror comes from showing the worst that can happen just once or twice, then letting the human story tangle itself in suspense, emotional cruelty and fear the rest of the time. You can really mess with readers' heads, y'know? Setting up expectations, cheating them of their closure… For example, the one episode of the webcomic which has caused the biggest ripple of "oh god, that's horrific" from readers so far contained no explodo gore, no great violence, and revolves around a baby playing with a couple of birds. And at the other end of the spectrum? The series opens with a Crossed guy raping a dolphin in its blowhole. That's sick and revolting and horrifying and, yes, kinda sets the tone – anything can happen in the next 22 episodes – but you'd be amazed at how many people can't help themselves having a guilty chuckle when they see it. That's a powerful thing to lay on someone: a sense of disgust, then a dark amusement, then disgust at their own smile. Horror pulls a lot of strings.
Anyway, where was I? Yeah, so, the decision to try and make the gig something more than tortureporn led to the simple understanding that if I was going to write these characters with heart and plausibility, rather than just having a bunch of over-the-top maniacs running about on the page, I was going to have to imagine how I'd respond if I was in their place. A bit of honesty injected into speculative fiction, right? So that threw-up a bunch of practicalities: I'd get the hell out of the city, I'd try and fall-in with strong and capable people, I'd head North (the Crossed don't take very good care of themselves: the colder it is, the better), etc. Critically, I figured that sooner-or-later I'd get sick of running. I'd be so exhausted and broken and hopeless that the notion of just stopping – trying to make a go of it rather than endlessly staying on the move – would overwhelm me. I figured a lot of people would probably be the same, and so the idea arose of a sort of commune: an awful, bleak version of "paradise", for people too angry or sad or sick to keep moving. 'Course, even then I'd be fucking useless. I can't fish, I can't hunt, I get stagefright taking a crap if there's anyone else in the house let alone taking a dump in the wilderness while other people watch… In this weird little community I'd imagined, everything's turned on its head. The people who used to be good at Big! Important! Things! – politicians, bankers, artists, creators – are suddenly worth dick-all. And… yeah: I figured that's a story worth telling.
With, y'know, the occasional exploding cow.
There's a very metatextual element to it, given the writer main character. Has that helped or hindered you with the story?
Mostly it's helped. At some point the whole "how would I feel in the main character's place?" thing morphed into something more direct… I don't intend to ever get too wanky and metafictional about it, but the protagonist is – to all intents and purposes – an Alternate Future version of myself. Up to the point when the Crossed outbreak begins we're kinda the same guy: writing novels and comics, mooching about in London, etc. I'm slightly harder on the story-version of Me than I need to be – "cowardly, despicable little cunt" and all that stuff – but it gives everything a way more honest resonance. One of the things I'm really interested in is the notion of Art as a defining trait. Being a writer's the only thing I'm much good at (though some readers would disagree), and so there's always a nasty, parasitic little compulsion to have an audience. Would I still write if there was nobody left to write for? Probably not. That's Shaky's neurosis right there. But then, some artists – visual artists, mostly – would probably keep on doing what they do for the sheer expressive joy of it – which seems far more honest and worthy than my own icky vocation. Anyway, all these little themes and ideas – see also: government, leadership, sexuality, mystery – are fascinating to me, and the trick throughout this series has been to keep hitting the right "horror" beats – serving-up the action and adrenaline – but all along gently suffusing things with slightly deeper thoughts.
There've been a couple of times when the meta thing's been very definitely a hindrance – or at least a bit of a brainfuck. There was one particular day when I was sitting in a coffee shop in Soho, writing about a guy sitting in a coffee shop in Soho, whose world suddenly gets turned upside down by a horde of shrieking infectious maniacs. I spent a lot of that day warily eyeing the door.
Wish You Were Here has far more of a 'hell is other people' feel than a lot of the previous series. How did that come about?
Heh. My chosen career involves sitting in a small room on my own for 10 hours at a time – you work it out.
"Lonely misanthropist" is about as close as you'll get to the wanky contradiction inside Shaky's head. He wants – needs – to be around people, but he's variously irritated-by, disgusted-by or afraid-of most of them. That's sort of the big question at the heart of the whole thing: what sort of people does it take so survive, to lead, to flourish…? The answers, I've discovered, aren't always as obvious as they seem.
What's next for the survivors? Do you have an endpoint in place?
The second 6-month arc kicks-off with a major change of pace, though obviously I can't say much about that.
One of the conscious decisions I took when approaching this project was to structure it in a deliberately haphazard fashion. It's built round Shaky's diary of his life on the island, so to get a real sense of how variable things are – you never quite know what's going to happen on any given day – I forced myself not to plot it too tightly. That sounds like I'm trying to validate my own laziness, I know, but seriously: it's fucking hard. As a writer my instinct is to structure everything insanely tightly, so all this business of sitting-down to write an episode and not entirely knowing what's going to happen is kinda scary. Again with the meta feedback between me and Shaky, I guess.
That said, there are Big Beats we'll be hitting along the way, which I've tuned-in with some care. I know exactly how it all ends too. I know what little bits and bobs have to be dripfed to foreshadow the creepy stuff on the horizon, and it's kind of exciting trying to maintain the spontaneity/uncertainty and the plotting all at once. It's a fucking headache a lot of the time, but I think the vibe that results is really tense.
What five words would you use to recommend Crossed?
Unexpectedly-thoughtful survivalist writerly wrongasm.
Crossed: Wish You Were Volume 1 is available for pre-order now. Do it. You know you want to.