Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Premee Mohamed

MohamedP-BeneathTheRisingMy parents said I was talking at eight months, and I believed them because many of my cousins also started super early; they said I was walking before I was a year old, and I believed them for the same reason. But when they told me that I could read when I was two, I made an earsplittingly loud raspberry noise. How could that even be possible?

Anyway, later on I researched hyperlexia and (with sinking stomach and moistening skin) realized that they might have been right after all. I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read. So when I think about the influences on my personality, decisions, preferences, and proclivities, I think: it’s books, it’s always books. It’s always been books and it’s always going to be books.

When I was younger (i.e. zero income) I had the usual handful of kid books given to me by relatives, and a small collection of nerd books that I begged for so regularly that my Dad gave in and started buying them. We never had much disposable income, so I’m missing books in some collections that he couldn’t find, but I was always grateful for the ones I did have. I read them again and again till the pages fell out (then spent entire weekends gently and diligently taping them back into the spines). I loved books about experiments and science, history, mythology, and fairytales. I was also allowed to go to the library as often as I liked, and what I borrowed and read there was rarely vetted (which led to me reading some pretty questionable stuff at a young age, but I figured if my parents didn’t mind, I shouldn’t either).

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Eventually, when I began working in high school, I began buying my own books, mostly from library sales. A ton of my books have scribbled-out barcodes and library stamps on them from all over Alberta. My book collection now is in the range of 2000 dead tree books and around 600 e-books, with a slow and slightly weird rate of turnover; I cull a handful of paperbacks every year, but I still have a lot of those childhood science books and those early library castoffs.

I have noticed, though, that my tastes have changed over the years. I pick up and read a much wider range of nonfiction now, in a huge range of fields, and my fiction is slowly being refined into only those authors I love rather than like, and of their books, only the ones I love rather than like. (There really isn’t space to do otherwise.)

In terms of fiction, aside from a ton of “classics,” my earliest favourites were definitely Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Diane Duane, Monica Hughes, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Allen Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett, William Gibson, Harry Harrison, Brian Daley, and Stephen King (so much Stephen King), but I don’t read them much anymore; I bought the last handful of Pratchett books but haven’t been able to summon up the enthusiasm to open them. I found that I began sliding towards more sci-fi, weird, and horror — with glee, because they were all so wonderfully different from what I had read as a child. I started hunting up Umberto Eco, China Mieville, Christopher Priest, Clive Barker (wow! I wish I had found Clive Barker when I was a kid!), Michael Moorcock (DITTO), Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, and Frank Herbert (I was around 20 when I first read Dune).

When it came to writing ‘Beneath the Rising,’ initially it was actually a strongly Christian, even Catholicism, influenced book; the villains were actual demons and the spirits of ‘turned’ saints (like turned milk, I guess?). However, as I kept working on it, and particularly in the ‘polish’ I did before I began querying it, I became more interested in having a more ‘fantastical’ evil, less familiar, more impersonal. Which was interesting in and of itself, because watching my book collection evolve was like watching the book itself evolve: everything I’d been collecting was leading towards the writing of this book, in which two kids become caught up in what at first seems like a wonderful plan to save the world from itself, and then becomes a desperate race to save it from something far, far worse.

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Working together, and from a position of very sketchy reference material, they have to solve ancient clues left by historical sorcerors and witches, travel to the Middle East, navigate labyrinths and dangerous libraries, and try to understand an enemy that’s never had an interest in understanding humanity aside from things to be exploited: unintelligent, without meaning or dignity, and almost below notice except as a plaything or resource.

Useful resources? The Necronomicon, of course, a handy almanac to look up some of Earth’s many enemies, guardians, witnesses, traitors, and so on, and the associated rituals. One of my Lovecraft collections (I like this one for the illustrations) with a lot of the sort of adolescentiana that I thought was interesting (set pieces of place or tone rather than narrative) for the feel I wanted for certain scenes in Beneath the Rising (spoiler alert: scenes not necessarily on or in Earth); EO James’ Ancient Gods for a general feel of real bad vibes and a reminder of humanity’s place in the universe (at all times below gods of any stripe); and Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful bestiary, which collects descriptions of animals from all mythologies, to help me visualize my made-up monsters (mostly eyeballs and teeth). Lord Dunsany, Franz Kafka, and Algernon Blackwood helped immensely for the tone and feel as well — there’s horror of the known, and then horror of the unknown, and the dawning that we will never be able to know about the unknown.

I also (unpictured) drew from my dozens of books and National Geographics and atlases about deserts, traveling in general, ecology, history, archaeology, mythology, ‘exploration’ (that is, the stories of colonization), navigation (I loved Dava Sobel’s Longitude), and anything else I could find with photos and maps of the cities the kids visit.

(You’ll notice that nothing about physics is on there and that is because I drew the ideas for the reactor more or less directly out of my lower intestine. I am hoping that no physicists or energy researchers read this book.)

Also, when I was doing the rewrite of this novel, I was encouraged by the numbers of authors I saw as ‘reclaiming’ Lovecraft and cosmic horror in general — Cassandra Khaw, Jonathan L. Howard, Ruthanna Emrys, Charles Stross, Victor LaValle, Caitlin Kiernan, and many others. There was something about the entire premise of cosmic horror, which is that if there is something unknown, it is almost automatically frightening: if it is hostile, we don’t have the knowledge to combat it, and if it is benevolent, it will seek to dominate us for our own good and we won’t have the knowledge to dissent. (Of course, it’ll never be benevolent, because villains are more fun to write.) They draw upon the idea that we are watched, that things sleep, that they know things about us that we physically and mentally cannot ever reciprocate and will be damaged if we try. In a lot of older cosmic horror, ignorance is also a source of hatred — not just monsters and deities, but anyone who is unfamiliar.

So in Beneath the Rising, it’s that very ignorance that is thrown into the spotlight. Johnny, the main character, is a scientist determined to know everything about everything, and it is unfathomable to her that she not know about their new foes. Knowledge is seen as power: the only power that humanity might be able to leverage. But in the process, it’s important not to lose track of the knowledge you might need to remember about the people around you. Not everything useful to know is in books, after all…

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Premie Mohamed’s Beneath the Rising is due to be published by Solaris tomorrow in North America, and on the 5th in the UK. Here’s the synopsis:

All the Birds in the Sky meets Lovecraft Country in this whimsical coming-of-age story about two kids in the middle of a war of eldritch horrors from outside spacetime…

Nick Prasad and Joanna “Johnny” Chambers have been friends since childhood. She’s rich, white, and a genius; he’s poor, brown, and secretly in love with her.

But when Johnny invents a clean reactor that could eliminate fossil fuels and change the world, she awakens the primal, evil Ancient ones set on subjugating humanity.

From the oldest library in the world to the ruins of Nineveh, hunted at every turn, they need to trust each other completely to survive…

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