Welcome to the site, Stephen Michell who’s new novel, Only the Devil is Here released in December. We had an opportunity to sit down and chat with the Toronto native about his writing, his influences and struggling with rejection.
Be sure to check out the excerpt of Only the Devil is Here below.
LS: How did your childhood and/or family influence you in your professional ‘storytelling’ career?
I grew up watching movies. Reading came later. When I conceptualize a story in my head, I see it first as if it were a movie, so it makes sense to me that my book was described as “cinematic.” But stories were a big part of my childhood. When I played games with my brother, either we’re-the-people games or using toy action figures, there was always a strong emphasis on the story. Our toys were much more than plastic. They were people. They had hearts. They could love and betray. They were very much alive. Trying to recapture the raw imaginative force of playing story-driven games with my brother is honestly one of the main reasons why I write
LS: Was there a single book or writer that influenced you as a child?
When I really started reading, it was with a series of books called Great Illustrated Classics. They were abridged versions of classic works with black and white illustrations. I read as many as I could find, often in used book stores, and I re-read my favourites like Count of Monte Cristo, Frankenstein, the Mutiny on Board the HMS Bounty, among others. It was around that same time that I read The Hobbit, and that changed things for me. While I continued to love reading “literature,” I was enthralled with the fantastical adventure of Middle Earth, the “genre” side of the story. It brought me right back to playing games with my brother. I knew right then that I wanted to write stories that involved magic, monsters, adventure, and thrills!
LS: Talk, if you would about inspiration. How important do you think outside influences are in motivating your muse? What type of inspiration do you rely on? Music? Art? Fiction?
I’ve read somewhere (or heard somewhere) that Neil Gaiman’s advice on inspiration is that you can’t wait for it. You need to write all the time. Then when you edit, you will know which sections were forced and which were inspired. I have not yet mastered that principle of “work hard and inspiration will come.” I still seek the inspiration first. Some things that inspire me are darkly lighted spaces, small white diner coffee cups, the sound when you pull a cork from a bottle of bourbon, the theme song from The Last of the Mohicans, to name just a few. All of these things and more were part of the inspiration for Only the Devil is Here.
LS: What is your writing process like? Do you need to outline and research before you write?
I think a writer’s process changes with the work. I have heard of authors who post their plot outlines on the walls around their offices, mapping character changes and relationships; and I’ve heard of authors who lock themselves in a room for nine days and come out with a completed novel. I can say that I am a morning writer, but that might be because I have a day job. I wrote the first draft of Only the Devil is Here very quickly. Then through second and third draft edits it was toned down, tuned up, and transformed into the “super-creepy northern gothic” that it is.
LS: Every writer struggles with rejection. What has your writer’s road been like? Did you ever want to give up? What kept you going?
Rejection is important. I wrote a novel when I was nineteen, called Stuck (it was essentially my version of Catcher in the Rye), and when it was finished I submitted it widely. I received many rejection letters. It sucked . . . but it was also the best. One of the rejections came with the printed manuscript returned and there were red pen markings throughout it. Not a ton, but enough. And I realized, “My book had been on an editor’s desk!” Someone had considered it, if only for a moment. Rejection hurts, but it’s important because it means you are doing it. There is a Faulkner quote that goes something like: once you have received 200 rejections, you can start counting your rejections. Rejections are a writer’s badges of honour, courage, and perseverance. Without the rejections, would we really care about the acceptances.
When they finally reached Union Station the city had awoken and the streets and sidewalks were busy. Rook kept Evan close, holding his hand. He tried to keep to the shadows but they were shrinking fast. They entered the concourse and Rook scouted for police.
He saw them.
He stepped back behind a square column and pulled Evan with him. The concourse was busy. Over the endless sea of bobbing heads, Rook had seen a group of five police officers standing next to a bank machine, chatting. They had seemed casual, but they were vigilant, surveying the crowd.
What the hell am I doing? Rook thought. This will never work. Shaking his head, he forced away his doubt and focused on his reward. He tried to picture Allison’s face. She would be there at the end of all of this. Just get the boy to the church.
Rook peered out at the officers again and then turned and took Evan’s arm and went out.
They walked back down towards the lake and stopped when they reached the Queens Quay under the highway overpass. The nearest crosswalk was out of sight. Rook waited for a gap in the traffic and then he pushed Evan to start across.
Evan wiggled from under his hand. Rook reached and grabbed him, but Evan struggled.
“What the hell are you doing?” Rook said.
“You keep pushing and pulling me,” Evan said. “I don’t like it.”
Rook stopped. A new stream of traffic was driving past. They stepped back from the curb. For a while they said nothing, only stared at each other.
Then Evan said, “You don’t have to push me. I’m coming with you.”
“You’re not going anywhere else, that’s for damn sure.”
“You think I’m going to run away.”
Rook scowled and glanced at the passing traffic.
Evan craned his neck straight up to look at Rook and said, “I saw those cops back there. I could’ve screamed, but I didn’t. I didn’t, okay? I’m coming with you. But I don’t want to be pushed anymore.”
“Are you about done?”
“There are mean people after me. People that are trying to get me. But you won’t let them get me. Right?”
“That remains my choice.”
“I got a choice, too,” the boy said, sounding proud.
Rook looked down at the child and scratched his chin through his beard. Evan waited.
“Okay,” Rook said. “I’ll stop pushing you. But be smart and do as you’re told. Got it?”
Evan nodded, a small grin escaping him.
Rook looked to the street. There was a gap in the traffic. Without much thought, he reached out to push Evan forward again, but he stopped himself. Evan glanced up at him with an expression that, under reversed circumstances, would have fit well on Rook’s face. Rook nodded. They crossed the street to the median beside one another.
They sat down on a large weathered concrete partition under the highway overpass. It was cold in the shadow and the windswept snow covered it. The rush and noise of the traffic overhead was deafening in waves. Gazing up, Evan wondered if the highway would collapse. A stream of cars and trucks drove past on their right and then another in the opposite direction on their left. There seemed no end to the tumult of traffic and Evan, watching it all, felt dizzy and almost sick in the midst of all the motion.
He looked at his palms and he looked up at Rook. He inched closer to the man, as his large body seemed to block the wind and emit its own measure of warmth.
“Come on,” Rook said, getting to his feet.
Evan got down and followed Rook to the curb. Rook was eyeing the traffic coming down the hill from the city. He knelt and spoke close to Evan’s ear.
“When it stops, do exactly as the driver tells you.”
“When what stops?”
“The bus. Do exactly as the driver says. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” Evan said.
The traffic was coming down the hill swiftly now. Evan saw a Greyhound bus at the top of the hill, but it was still far away behind lines of traffic. His hands started to sweat in the cold, and he was feeling scared. How was he supposed to do what the driver told him? He didn’t think the bus would ever stop for them.
All of a sudden Rook stumbled and put his hand on Evan’s shoulder. His legs slackened and he held onto the boy for support. Evan struggled, bracing Rook with both hands.
“What’s wrong?” Evan said.
The traffic on the hill slowed and brake lights shone red and car horns honked. Evan looked up and saw the Greyhound bus cutting into the left lane towards them.
It was going to hit them, Evan thought. He tried to step back from the curb out of its way, but it was difficult to move under Rook’s weight.
“Mr. Rook,” Evan said. “Look out!”
Rook groaned and slumped harder against him. Evan heaved his weight into Rook’s chest to knock him back out of the way, but at that moment the bus pulled to a halt upon the curb of the median.
The driver slid the side window ajar and stuck his head out. He stared straight ahead as if looking at nothing. Then he said, “Get on the bus. Come on. Let’s go, hurry up!”
Evan stood still, staring up at the driver and half-holding Rook. Then he felt Rook’s hold on him tighten, and he remembered his instructions, Rook’s words. His expression tightened with resolve.
“We’re coming,” he shouted up to the driver.
Evan started off the curb with Rook’s hand on his shoulder, Rook stumbling and groaning. Cars honked and pulled around the bus and Evan heard indiscernible shouts and calls after them, swears and curse words he knew and remembered from the tongue of his foster father.
They came around the front of the bus and Rook grabbed the door and Evan slid out from under him and ran up the steps. The driver kept staring out through the windshield and said nothing, nor did he acknowledge Evan’s entrance in any way. Rook lumbered into the bus after him.
They edged down the aisle and Rook used each headrest as a leaning post. The startled, uncertain passengers acknowledged the boy and the man with looks of curiosity, annoyance, and suspicion.
Evan went all the way to the back of the bus to find two open seats; the rest were taken. Rook waited until Evan had crawled across to the window and then flung himself down. He put his head back against the rest, closed his eyes, and let out a deep breath as if he’d been holding it this whole time. He groaned. The bus was put into gear rather suddenly and it lurched into motion.
Evan sat and watched Rook. He saw a line of blood run from the man’s nose. Rook’s hand came up and wiped it away. Then, slowly, Rook opened his eyes. The bus was lugging up the ramp onto the freeway.
Evan whispered, “Are you okay?”
Rook wiped his nose again. He breathed easy. But he said nothing.
Evan watched him with worry. His hands were still sweating, and he wanted Rook to answer him.
After a moment, he said, “Mr. Rook, what happened to you?”
“Just be quiet,” Rook said.
Evan narrowed his eyes and then he turned away and crossed his arms and looked out the window. The bus drove smoothly. Along the highway the traffic was even. The sun had risen well into a blue sky and there were only a few loose and thin clouds gathering. Evan watched the city transform into the passing of unknown streets and buildings, blurred into a grid of grey and silver motion at once enormous and miniscule. It seemed a faraway place.
Evan turned his head to look out the windows across the aisle and through the shifts of clouds he saw the lake, shimmering in the sun, and at times it looked as if the water was on fire. Streams of oncoming traffic flowed before this mirage and Evan pictured a conveyor belt of stars. There was an unusual familiarity to it all that he could not understand, and yet it comforted him.
“I’ve never left the city before,” Evan said, more to himself than anyone else.
Rook looked down at him. “Your parents never—” The words dried in his mouth, as he realized what he was saying.
Evan said nothing at first. When he spoke next, Rook thought he sounded older than his years.
“They weren’t my real parents,” Evan said. “I got placed with them a year ago.”
“You’re an orphan?”
Evan nodded. He was quiet, gazing out the window. Then he said, “The man wasn’t very nice to me. He never really wanted me around. He used to call me money. The lady didn’t really want me either, but she pretended sometimes, at least. She was nice. Adam would always just put me in my room. Even if I didn’t do anything. He’d get really mad at me and sometimes he would get really mad at Evie, too, but only when she would have a freak out and start throwing out all their stuff and saying she wanted to get better and cleaned up. Then Adam would get really angry and chase after her until she locked herself in the bathroom, and then he’d come after me and she wouldn’t stop him.”
He paused and trailed his finger along the window casing. Then he said, “One time Evie took me to this big plant place inside a glass house and it was all misty and warm when it was snowing outside. The plants were so big and there was one kind that had red leaves that looked like tongues and Evie told me it was a man-eating plant and if you got too close it would eat you. She took me for waffles after, too. Adam was working that day. That was a nice day, at least.”
Rook asked, “You don’t know who your real parents are?”
Evan shook his head. Then he said, “I know a bit. I know she was a farmer.”
“A farmer? You mean your mother?”
“That’s what they said. Adam said he read it in my file. It said I was found in a farmer’s field with her.”
“And she was your mother?”
“Yep. But she died.”
Rook took a breath as if drawing back from the boy’s comment and shook his head. “Nothing’s ever free,” he said, sounding tired. “Not a life, a breath, nothing. Someone always pays the cost.”
Evan looked up at Rook and waited until the man returned his gaze. Then in a whisper, he said, “Mr. Rook, what—”
“Just call me Rook.”
Evan paused. “Okay,” he said. “Rook, what happened to you back there?”
“We got on the bus.”
“But why did you fall over? And how did you know the bus was going to stop? Do you know the driver?”
“I do now,” Rook said and winced as if from a headache.
Evan sat and watched him, his small brow furrowed, and he scanned Rook’s face, eyes darting, as though the answer lay within the intricacies of the man’s ragged skin. Rook saw Evan studying him.
“You really want to know?” he asked.
Evan gave a clear nod.
Rook leaned down to the boy and whispered. “I made a link between the driver and myself. It was weak because I did it during the day. That’s why I needed you help. It took almost everything out of me. It would’ve been stronger if I’d conjured it at night.”
Evan said nothing, but his eyes widened.
Rook said, “I went inside the driver’s mind. I took control of him. I was him for a few moments. And I made him stop the bus.”
“You were the driver?”
“That’s right,” Rook said again. “But there was a price.”
“A price?” Evan whispered, as if it were a great secret.
Rook nodded. “It cost a piece of my own memory.”
“How much?” Evan asked.
“It depends how long I’m away from myself.” Rook shifted and pulled his coat tails out from under him. He went on. “The longer I stay in another’s mind, the more memory I must give. If I stay too long, I risk forgetting who I am completely. Becoming lost. This has happened to others. They get trapped inside someone else’s mind and go mad.”
Evan nodded. He felt he understood, but could think of little to say. He was picturing a sick-looking child, thrashing in bed while all around stood priests and doctors.
Finally, he said, “Do you have to give up a nice memory?”
“I don’t know,” Rook said. “I can’t remember.”
The bus drove on and for some time neither of them, nor anyone it seemed, said a word. From one of the seats ahead music played, muffled through the headphones of a sleeping passenger. Outside the windows, the city had vanished and there were now expanses of snow-covered fields and a distant ridge of rock and trees.
After a while, Evan said, “Mr. Rook—I mean Rook—where are we going?”
“Shade’s Mills,” Rook said.
“It’s a small town not too far from here.”
“Why are we going there?”
“We’re going to meet someone.”
“Someone at a church.”
“Who are we meeting?”
Rook realized he didn’t have an answer to that. He said nothing.
“Do you have a family?”
“What happened to them?”
Rook’s expression darkened. “That’s enough chatter,” he said.
Evan started to ask another question, but right at that moment the bus swerved hard into the left lane. The driver gripped the steering wheel and pulled it back fast, his knuckles white. His heart raced as he steered the bus safely again into the centre lane. He let out his breath.
As soon as the bus was steadied, Rook sat forward and looked up and down the aisle. The light on the windows had changed. It seemed a cloud had formed over the highway, or the glass was repelling the sunlight. Rook was alarmingly aware that they were trapped inside a speeding bus.
The driver held their course, cruising, along Highway 401, southwest through The Ontario Greenbelt. The shadow Rook had noticed, or thought he’d noticed, lifted from the windows and the sunlight came back against the glass.
But something was different. Rook could feel it. The air inside the bus had changed. It was denser and heavier to breathe. Rook sniffed, catching a trace of smoke and sulfur like burning eggs.
Something had entered the bus.
Rook sat up straight in his seat. He touched Evan’s arm, and the boy looked up at him and saw the gravity in Rook’s eyes and became nervous himself.
“What is it?” Evan whispered.
“Stay calm,” Rook said.
There was an elderly woman in a blue shawl sitting three seats up the aisle from them and, slowly, she began to turn.
Rook leaned out into the aisle and glanced down the length of the bus. At the same time, three other passengers also leaned out in unison and stared right back at him. Rook sat back abruptly.
Evan pulled at Rook’s sleeve. “What is it, Rook?”
“We have to get off this bus.”
He took Evan’s hand and started to get up, but froze. The elderly woman in the blue shawl had twisted around completely in her seat to face them. Rook swallowed hard.
The old woman’s eyes were gone. In their place were two burned-out, blackened holes. It made her seem hollow and lifeless and yet she was still moving. Everyone was moving. Rook watched as more passengers turned, eyes the same burned-out holes, all of them twisting together in a horrid and unnatural unison.
“Come on, Evan,” Rook said, pulling his hand.
Evan started. At the same moment, the passenger behind him rose from her seat. It was a young girl, perhaps twelve years old, with whitish-blonde hair in pigtails. When she reached her arm over the headrest, Evan turned and looked into her charred eye sockets. Her hand gripped his sleeve.
Rook had been watching the others, but he turned fast. He saw the little girl’s grip on Evan’s sleeve and right away smashed his fist across her arm and heard it break. Then he grabbed Evan and lifted him into his arms.
Braced against Rook’s shoulder, Evan caught a glimpse down the length of the entire bus and witnessed a savage moment as every passenger, eyeless and horrible, came climbing and clawing over the seats, moving as one great roiling mass to get at them.
“Go, Rook!” Evan cried. “Go!” And he buried his face into the crook of Rook’s neck.
He heard and felt Rook moving, hustling past the last few seats to the very back of the bus. Rook’s strong arm tightened around his waist.
“Hold onto me,” Rook said.
Evan wrapped his arms around Rook’s neck and kept his eyes closed. He tried to think hard about what was happening, to make this all stop. He thought about the driver and the girl with the pigtails, tried to hear them in his special way, but what came to him was not a voice as he had ever heard before. It was a monstrous howling scream, and Evan physically recoiled from it, almost falling from Rook’s arms. He couldn’t bear to try again.
The bus swerved again and there was a violent tumbling of bodies, and Rook jammed his foot against the side of a seat to keep from going over. Evan’s eyes opened instinctively. In that moment, he saw every passenger toppled together, surging and clawing like some wormy mass, and at the front of them he saw the driver. The man’s eyes were charred like the rest, and his face was gouged and bleeding. Evan buried his face in Rook’s neck, unable to witness anymore.
But the driver continued, pressing ahead of the rest, his arms outstretched and reaching like some grotesque supplicant caught between fealty and defiance.
The bus was lurching into the highway shoulder, the guardrail rising up before them rapidly.
As the driver clambered within reach, Rook grabbed the man’s head and slammed it twice against a headrest and flung him back down the aisle. The others recoiled and then surged towards him and Evan again.
Rook hitched Evan firmly against his shoulder and reached up to the ceiling of the bus with his free arm. Evan looked up and watched Rook’s hand grip the red lever on the emergency exit hatch, and then pull down.
There was a sharp pop above them and a rush of sucking wind, the force of which made Evan turn away. He felt himself raised up through the opening, and the sunlight was bright on his face. He could barely keep his eyes open against the wind, and he thought the force of it would blow him away, but Rook held him from below. Evan pressed his hands flat on the top of the bus, wishing he had something better to hold onto. Then he felt Rook climb up behind him. Rook’s hands hooked under his armpits and he was lifted and gathered against Rook’s chest. He could feel Rook’s coarse beard on the back of his neck. The grip was almost suffocating.
“Hang on!” Rook shouted over the wind.
And then they were moving—flying—falling—and Evan saw the bus go upside down and far away. Rook’s arms surrounded him, holding him so tight. They hit the hard gravel shoulder of the highway and rolled.