First Encounters With The Whispering Dark – Talking With Christofer Emgård
by Hannah Means Shannon
The first issue of new horror miniseries The Whispering Dark is hitting comic shops next Wednesday, on October 24th, from Dark Horse Comics, and it’s well-timed for the Halloween season. Written by Christofer Emgård with artwork by Tomas Aira, the glimpse of the first issue that I’ve had has convinced me of its spine-tingling qualities. It conveys an air of apprehension for a group of soldiers who’ve wandered into something they don’t understand in a conflict situation in the Caucasus.
Featuring a central character with strong religious convictions, as well as crises of faith, that may be coloring her perceptions, The Whispering Dark draws us into an unpredictable world with a certain dream-like quality that fans of Annihilation will appreciate, as well as those who have a certain yen for horror tradition and Lovecraftian concepts.
Christofer Emgård joined us for a chat at New York Comic Con 2018, and you can hear all about his foundational ideas for the series below.
Hannah Means-Shannon: One of the things I noticed quickly in looking at the first issue of The Whispering Dark was the use of religious themes and religious imagery in the comic. Is that something that permeates the whole series and is key to you? Or is it something more to do with groundwork?
Christofer Emgård: It actually wasn’t there from the start. When the story first came to me, there wasn’t really a strong religious aspect to it. But that came along with the main character. It became more and more about her and her faith, and the ways in which it becomes perverted. So, yes, I would say, it does permeate the series.
HMS: And that’s our main character, Hannah?
HMS: And she’s a soldier?
CE: She’s a soldier. She’s a pilot, but she’s not a combat solider, as opposed to some of the other Rangers. There’s a struggle between being a soldier, and some of her religious ideas, like that you shouldn’t kill.
HMS: It seemed that was being set up as a pretty important axis point of conflict in the comic based on the first issue—that she’s a soldier but she feels she should not kill. The tension between protecting life and taking life.
CE: Definitely. And what is “good”? How do you try to advance good? Does it continue to be good?
HMS: So, for Hannah, what does she think “good” is? Or does she know?
CE: I think she starts out, at least, believing in some idea of a higher purpose and that there is an absolute good. Like helping people, or protecting people. And if you need to hurt someone else to do that? Well, there are bad people. She starts out, at least, believing that. But as she progresses, all those things become more and more muddled for her.
HMS: This is a main character, then, who could potentially face a kind of crisis of personality, it seems. That’s pretty fascinating. As a reader, I’m pretty interested in stories that have horror elements, and in particular, when I see a story that has a female lead. Not only that, of course, but she’s in the military and she’s making command decisions in some situations.
All of that is interesting. I didn’t particularly notice you making gender “a thing” in this comic, though. Is that fair? She happens to be female. But that representation is still interesting to me, because her gender is going to affect her perceptions and, to some extent, her actions. Also, it seems to play into her family relationships.
CE: I think that the fact that you didn’t see gender being “a thing” in the comic is somewhat intentional. I want you to see that she is a woman, but in this storyline, that’s not the main thing.
HMS: Sure, it’s not the main focus. It’s not a book about being a woman in the military, per se.
CE: Exactly. And that would also be an interesting story to tell, but that’s not what this is.
HMS: To circle back to religion, a little bit, is the approach to religion presented in this book historical and traditional, or is it more fantasy-based? Are we dealing with Orthodoxy, for instance?
CE: Her Christian faith is just inspired by American churches, in general. With that said, being Swedish, I’m very secularized. I guess I’m spiritual to some degree, but not within the Christian framework. I guess I have a different relationship to Christianity than many other people do, but with that said, my mom paints icons. I also grew up with a grandmother who was religious, so I had that, but not the extent that it’s a big part of my life. It’s more something that I “look in on”. But I still wanted to create Hannah’s faith in a way that feels real, and grounded. And I also pulled in other elements, which are outside of Christian mythology, so I don’t stay within Christian mythology. Was that your question, really?
HMS: Yes, I was wondering how rigidly you might be maintaining those boundaries in the comic.
CE: Based on that, no. She has her faith, and I leave it unsaid whether that’s well-founded. There are other elements, but they are outside of that mythology, so it’s a mixed mythology.
HMS: Skirting carefully around spoilers here, of course! There’s an event in the first issue that puts things in perspective about size, and scope, and scale of power. Even though it is important to the plot, it also has an emotional impact for me of realizing how small human beings are and how affected they are by larger forces.
I get the impression that some of the supernatural elements in this comic might be about things that are “bigger” than human beings. In other words, it’s a hostile universe situation, and that’s always quite scary!
CE: Yes! It is. Because there is possibly a hopelessness to that. There’s despair with that. Which I guess I thrive on that a little in this story.
HMS: That’s the basis behind Lovecraft’s ideas, right? That it’s an indifferent or hostile universe, and the unknown is quite alien, possibly full of beings who are quite alien.
CE: Yes. And they are uncaring, to some extent. And if they do care, that’s even worse, because we have nothing with which to put up a fight. I read Lovecraft in two different ways. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones approach, to me, like a “cozy horror”, but then there’s the truly terrible way to read his work, which is that. It’s the uncaring universe. I think this story leans more toward the latter than the former.
HMS: I just got little hints that it might be the case, not from anything obvious, though. There are some panels in the comic that “pull out” the way a camera would in a film, and you see the human characters in context as small and isolated. That tone suggests things to me, that you’re heading down that path.
CE: I hope so! We’ll see.
HMS: So, since we’re hitting all the big thematic topics here, I might as well bring up “death”. It’s mentioned. It’s in the dialog. It’s discussed. It recurs already, just in the first issue. Hannah reflects on an incident from her past, and it focuses on death. I get the sense that she used to think there might be something beautiful about death, but now she no longer thinks that? Now she’s seeing things differently?
CE: I think she’s been told that death is beautiful. She wants to believe that it is. But the reality of death, as she confronts it, and is hit by it, it isn’t. Maybe it could be. But not in the world as she sees it.
HMS: Maybe it would be from some other perspective, but not her limited perspective?
CE: Possibly, yes. But I think that’s part of her relationship with her faith, starting to question the things that she’s been told, due to the reality that she’s encountered. Those things are at odds. There’s a cognitive dissonance there.
HMS: She’s of two minds, definitely.
CE: And I think that’s what the conflict is about.
HMS: My next question kind of relates to this! Because mental states play a role here. Everyone is suffering from a lack of sleep, and is taking pills to stay awake. They talk about their mental states as being unusual, which is great stuff for horror. Because if the characters are out of control as well as the environment, it gets so much worse.
CE: Yes, sure. I’ve always been fascinated by that: What is real, and how do we know? How do we “read” reality, and what if we cannot read it properly? Is it real horror, or is it just in our heads? I want to play on that.
HMS: I’ve come across stories occasionally that link the trauma of being a soldier, or of war, with horror, in discussing mental states. Is seems like horror and war themes go together.
CE: They do. War is an extreme situation, possibly the most extreme situation we can create for ourselves. And that brings out the most extreme things in us, in all kinds of ways, and mostly horrifying ways. Terrible as that sounds, I think that’s what fascinates me. What it does to people.
HMS: It’s a case, it seems, of people becoming unrecognizable even to themselves. Of things coming out of them that even they didn’t know were in them.
CE: Exactly, yes. I grew up being enamored of the military, and weapons, and then as I grew older, and read more about war, I realized that the most terrible thing might not necessarily be your friend dying, but you, killing. And what that does to you. You can see that in this story, I think.
HMS: It sounds like a real, historical thing that pills are used by soldiers to stay awake in war situations. Is it?
CE: It really is. The Germans did it in World War II. They took amphetamines way back then. And today, for US pilots, it’s prescribed. I’m not sure which kind it is, but it’s some kind of amphetamine. There was a case in Afghanistan where a guy went out and killed a whole family of civilians. He was later found to have taken way too much of this stuff, for way too long. I know it played a role in the situation. And there were a lot of rumors about what went on during Vietnam.
Have you seen the film Jacob’s Ladder?
CE: It’s one of my favorite movies, and it’s also about that. The ladder. The drug that they take. That has also been a definite inspiration for this.
HMS: Can we talk a little about the artwork and the aesthetics of the comic, by Tomas Aira?
CE: I will try to speak for Tomas, sure.
HMS: Did you have any particular ideas about the aesthetics before Tomas started working?
CE: I knew that I wanted it to be very realistic in terms of the depiction of soldiers and details. Because I wanted everything to feel contemporary or near-contemporary in terms of soldiers. But when I started out, I wasn’t sure what the more supernatural elements would feel like or how they would be portrayed. That is something that has evolved, together with Tomas, as we’ve worked.
HMS: I definitely noticed the use of realism in the linework and the details. It feels very “matter of fact”.
CE: Yes. That’s something intentional. When we chose Tomas, that was one of the reasons. He had been doing a lot of war comics with Garth Ennis. You see a lot of nice detail work that he did there. And as it turned out, he had a huge Lovecraft influence as well, so it was a lucky combination for us.
HMS: He shows some rare talent on this book already, I think. Because there are some moments where the artwork needs to transition from this very straightforward depiction of events into something—else. Some other mental state or what have you. And it’s seamless with Tomas, with no sense of jump.
Were there any specific choices you made in terms of settings for this story? It feels kind of timeless since these soldiers are isolated in a landscape. Does it matter where they are?
CE: Not really. It could be anywhere. Although, when this story first came to mind, I was 19 years old, and it’s been lying there, waiting. And already then, it featured Russians and it was set somewhere in the Caucasus. And over the years, sometimes it felt like events like this would never happen. But now we are actually at a point where this could happen. More than maybe 10 years ago. So, this has come full circle. It’s not about the conflict, per se. The conflict is just a breeding ground.
HMS: It reminded me a little of some sci-fi stories that take place on alien worlds, very isolated, and really that’s the important thing, the isolation.
CE: That’s exactly the case. This could be Vietnam. This could be Afghanistan. I think I wanted an enemy that was technologically on par with the Americans, and that’s why the Russians stayed with it so long. You’ll understand why when you get further into the story. And also to motivate the big events of the first issue.
Thanks so much to Christofer Emgård for taking part in this interview at New York Comic Con 2018! The Whispering Dark #1 hits comic shops next Wednesday, October 24th, from Dark Horse Comics and poses plenty of dark mysteries to explore.