In a place on the edge of reality where magic is real, a community is threatened by dark forces that lurk ominously around every shadowed corner. Insidious secrets come to light and bizarre cults are exposed. A professor and paranormal scholar must save his students from a grisly demise as evil from another world invades the quiet spaces we all take refuge in. This is the world of Harbinger Island, the debut novel from Dorian Dawes, and it’s a terrifying place to live. There is both a cosmic scope of impending doom and a focus on a small interconnected band of queer misfits that must attempt survival in the face of the worst horror they have ever known.
Dawes has created a world of impressive scope, where the occult terror feels oppressive enough to leak through the pages into the real world. It also isn’t the typical whitewashed story one would expect from the horror genre. Instead, audiences are treated to a truly diverse cast where people of different genders, sexualities, races and ethnicities step out of the background to claim their rightful place at the front of the story.
I got a chance to speak with Dorian about the universe of their creation, the inspiration for their fascinating characters, and horror’s need for diversity as a whole.
Tell me about how the novel evolved. I know it first started as a tabletop RPG campaign and then you put the short stories on your Patreon. Was it always your intention to publish it in book form or did that idea come later?
When I was originally drafting up the idea and the concept for Harbinger Island, I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was just so desperate for this modern fantasy horror type thing. It started with the tabletop campaign. It was after the short stories that the idea of putting them together in a weird kind of anthology came into being. It was kind of the intention from the get-go, once I started writing down the stories.
Putting the short stories together in the whole similar universe and having them interconnected — it did it start out that way? Did you create the universe gradually as you wrote the stories or was it all plotted in your head already?
A lot of it came from again when I was creating things for the tabletop campaign, so I had a good idea of the specifics and basics of everything. I had the Carcosa Syndicate. I had the Eldritch horrors. I had the names of the towns, but some other things kind of came in while I was writing, like Rosie was a last minute addition. I had so much fun with her. She kind of came on while I was writing it out each story so there were some things that were new. It was basically a mixture of what I already knew in my head versus the building blocks that were kind of emerging as I was writing each individual story.
What was the original inspiration for the idea that made you want to have this dark, forboding, horror universe and fill it with diverse queer people?
It was the lack of something like that really existing like modern fantasy exists — it’s a growing genre right now, but most urban fantasy novels that I’ve read seem to fall into this really specific rut of this grizzled neo-noir detective story. And while those stories are very cool and very good, I wanted more. I wanted to add more magic, I wanted to add more gay people. I wanted The X-Files but with magic and gays.
I know you’ve been writing stories with queer characters for a while. Have you found opposition to your subject matter in the horror market specifically? I feel that aside from maybe Clive Barker, it’s really oversaturated with stories about straight white people and their families.
I submitted to an anthology and was told they weren’t accepting stories with LGBT characters, but that was a really long time ago I can hardly remember what it was for. One time I do remember is the first time I tried to find an agent, years and years ago I had this manuscript, it was about 100 pages, really short. I was really proud of it. It was about a gay boy who meets a serial killer who ends up drugging him and taking him on this weird, horrifying acid trip and then letting him live. The lit world is actually really happy about the LGBT fiction right now that they’re discovering, and if you do get rejected on those grounds, they will not tell you.
That makes sense. I feel the literary world is expanding in its need for diversity and bigots are getting called out, like the whole Sad Puppies thing.
But they’re in a minority. From my perspective, I think the lit world is pretty progressive.
But the queer market, with genre fiction especially, there’s still a hole there because people haven’t tried to experiment. They’ve written the realistic stories, the romance stories, stuff like that, but the idea of taking queer people and putting them into these fantastical situations is still new. I think you’re providing a service there.
I definitely think there’s a lack of that but I know that there are people who are trying to fix it. I don’t want to sound super edgy and put the spotlight on myself for combining queer and genre fiction, even though that’s my goal and I think there’s a lack of that- I don’t think it’s for a lack of trying. Because right now what I’ve noticed in the lit world is that the LGBT section is kind of sequestered and pigeon-holed in this kind of contemporary-realism type genre.
Yeah, or it’s like romance.
I think people are looking for something different, though. With Manifold Press Harbinger Island was their first horror novel and they were really excited about it because it was so outside of the box. So I think there’s a want, publishers are specifically looking for this stuff right now, there’s an awareness that there’s an audience for genre fiction featuring queer people.
I’ve noticed too with the racial diversity. It seems like the horror genre is just painfully white sometimes. Was it important for you to have a racially diverse cast in your novel?
It was important to me for multiple reasons. One, I don’t like writing anything that’s like super white because having an all-white cast doesn’t feel believable to me. I want my work to always reflect diversity because the real world is diverse. That’s why I hate the term ‘forced diversity’ because you don’t just walk out of your apartment and see — there’s a black family, there’s a Mexican family, and go “This apartment complex is forced diversity!” It’s just the nature of the communities that we live in. You go outside, there’s going to be non-white people out there. GASP. I know!
Some white people make excuses for themselves. They say ‘Oh I don’t know enough about this culture’ or they say they don’t know any black people, Mexicans or Muslims and they don’t want to become involved so they just feature whites as a default.
Yeah, and it’s both racist and lazy. It’s kind of double-bad. Not only is it really easy to research but there’s a lot of people of color who will happily educate you. That’s one of the reasons that Twitter is such a wonderful writer’s resource. Just follow a number of black feminists and they will share tweets about what’s going on in their culture and politics from their point of view. I believe there’s a Tumblr called “writing with color” that gives advice on how to write people of color respectfully and with sensitivity. There are lots of resources out there online that you can use, so there’s no excuse.
When you were writing Dayabir, what inspired you to write a Sikh character specifically and put the research into that to make it a positive representation?
So Dayabir was inspired partially by some of the Sikh people that I follow on Twitter. One in particular was such a kind-hearted, sweet and caring and loving individual. That was the idea. I wanted someone soft and sensitive. You don’t really see Sikh people in anything, and you definitely don’t see gay Sikh people at all, but I know they exist. I heavily researched their religion and it’s beautiful. It’s very much about equality and loving others. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone full of more kindness than Sikh people.
That’s wonderful, I love that you did that.
I wanted to show that in my fiction because there had to be genuine goodness to contrast all the horror.
I see that in the characters. They have this thing inside of them that keeps them going. In some horror fiction, it’s just these cookie-cutter characters and they’re being put upon by these horrible forces and the only thing that distinguishes them are the bad things that happen to them.
I needed them to be defined by things other than their trauma.
And they are. They’re really distinctive and that’s something that really stands out about this book. Another one of your characters that is really one of my favorites is Bartleby, especially because older trans men are rarely represented in the media. Trans women have always been there and but trans men are just now getting more visibility. It’s always the young ones — more like the character Justin kind of. You don’t see the creepy occult expert who just happens to be trans. The storyline always revolves around them being trans. Was it important for you to make that distinction? He was a complete character first and then he was a trans man?
That’s kind of how Bartleby came into existence, as a complete character. Bartleby was the first character to be created for Harbinger Island period. It all started with Bartleby and I created the rest of the world around him. When I was getting ready to do the tabletop campaign it just came to me like “Oh, he’s trans” and it wasn’t like I was trying to be super progressive.
I want to see that more. Like “oh, this character just happens to be trans” but it’s not the defining element.
Yeah, it was as simple as “this character has blonde hair!” As a character is forming in your head you start getting little random facts and tidbits so that was where that came from. I want to tell trans stories that don’t specifically revolve around their transness. They’re people, they’re not just trans. It’s a part of who they are, it’s a part of Bartleby’s history — the first story in the book is about how he first comes out of the closet as a young boy, but his story doesn’t completely revolve around that. His story is about death and horror and the sins of his past, the conspiracies he’s obsessed with and also protecting the students that he very much loves.
I think it’s a thing with gays as well. A lot of the stories in gay movies are just about one’s coming out and homophobia.
I hate most of them.
They’re fucking awful. Why can’t we have queer characters that aren’t marketed to show straight people what it’s like to be queer? Instead, they’re just individuals in and of themselves.
Yeah, I didn’t want to write oppression porn for straight people, even though oppression is a theme of the book.
It seems like that’s all straight people want to hear about.
This was not written for straight people. I mean, I hope straight people will read it and I hope they’ll enjoy it very much but that was not the audience that I had in mind.
You had the audience of queer people who are not finding this kind of fiction. They want it and they want to see themselves represented.
This was basically written for all the queer weirdos out there.
All the outcasts and freaks, which is awesome. You have all of these types that aren’t usually represented and it’s really inspiring to see that. I just feel that’s what we should see more of because that’s the world that we live in.
It’s very much one of the themes of the book, is diverse persecuted minorities coming together in the face of overwhelming evil and pushing back against it.
That comes through really well. Going back to Bartleby, what were some of your inspirations for that character.
Every Jeffrey Combs movie ever. Specifically The Frighteners, but there’s a wonderful character that Jeffrey Combs plays in the MMO game The Secret World. He is the headmaster for the Innsmouth Academy which is run by the Illuminati. He’s different than Bartleby in that he is explicitly amoral and Bartleby is very moral. He’s very selfish and self-centered whereas Bartleby wants to protect and help everybody. They’re kind of similar in mannerisms and that they’ve both been so exposed to occult horror that it’s made them a little eccentric. I wanted that kind of creepy morbid eccentricity. I thought that the best thing about Bartleby would be that he would be this really kind of creepy dude, almost offputting.
Yeah, he’s that kind of a weirdo that you would find in an occult bookstore.
I wanted him to be really scary at first until you got to know him. I thought that was such a fun contrast. The person who wants to help and protect people more than anyone else is the creepiest. He’s such a weirdo. So, there’s a scene in the book where he meets Dayabir for the first time and he can tell that Dayabir is anxious and scared. He wants to help Dayabir appear more assured. Bartleby can see auras, it’s one of his powers. He just looks at Dayabir and says “Your aura is beautiful”.
I would love it if someone said that to me. I would fall in love with them, I swear…
It’s such a strange and kind of unsettling thing to say to someone! I don’t know if that’s exactly what he says but it’s at least a compliment to his aura, and it does not put Dayabir at ease at all. He’s well meaning but off-putting. And also really socially awkward because I relate to that.
A lot of people don’t relate to these kinds of social butterfly characters in fiction that are written by social-climbing New Yorkers.
I can’t relate to that. I’m not a social climber. I’m very awkward. So Bartleby is partially my own anxiety and awkwardness, and always wondering “Am I coming across as weird?”
Yeah, and I just think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. It’s needed.
I can also find a lot of humor and comedy in that type of situation. I wanted it to be funny, and there’s a lot of humor that can come out of when he accidentally says something that ends up scaring the shit out of everyone in the room.
Is it important to have that element of humor in your work so it’s not just darky-dark-dark-darkness all the time?
Oh my god, it’s essential! Humor is I think one of the most underused and powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox, no matter what you’re writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy or not, everyone should learn how to write humor.
It’s kind of hard, though.
It’s so difficult. Comedy, like horror, is super subjective. It’s very difficult.
Because what you find funny might not be what other people find funny.
I struggle with that, going “well, is this funny?” There’s a section of the book that I’m still really nervous about, where everyone’s like “Don’t make it a thing! I’m making it a thing! Don’t make it a thing!” and I’m really worried about it just coming across as obnoxious. I want it to be funny, but I’m afraid people are just going to look at it and go “Oh my god it’s Whedon-ese.”
The people who just want to make a sarcastic comment are going to do it anyway no matter what you write.
That’s true, that’s true. But I feel like humor is really important especially when you’re trying to create likable and endearing characters, because when characters make you laugh, we like them more. Like “Oh, I like them, they’re funny.”
Yes, and it connects people.
It connects people, it makes them feel more human. Having likable and endearing characters is so integral to telling a well-crafted horror story. If I don’t like you, I am not going to feel afraid for you when the boogeyman comes.
Yeah, you’re just going to want that character to die and be like “Yes!”
So when a sweetheart like Dayabir gets put in mortal danger, it’s frightening. It’s tense. You don’t want anything to happen to him.
Was the trauma that the characters go through something cathartic, like channeling negative emotions into them?
So while I was writing Harbinger Island, I was still recovering from some pretty intense trauma, and a lot of that trauma went into those characters. I don’t know if it was specifically like a cathartic thing for me, it was just where my head was. Some of the things that the characters go through are metaphors for my own life exaggerated, or some of the concepts. I explore abusive relationships with what Justin goes through. I explore how I relate to some of my relative with Kara and Veronika’s relationships to their mothers.
You didn’t murder any of your relatives…did you?
I did not. Don’t murder your relatives. And at least if you did, don’t brag about it in an interview. I really don’t know that kind of magic.
Sure. That will be your next book: Using Witchcraft for Murder, an Instructional Guide by Dorian Dawes.
I have friends online who would sue me for copyright infringement for moving in on their brand.
Did it help on an emotional level to have these characters go through the same kinds of experiences you did?
I couldn’t tell you. I just know that the mindset, while I was writing Harbinger Island, was very difficult.
Was that why it was so dark? Because you were in a dark place emotionally?
Yes, to the point where when I started writing my next book I decided it’s going to be funny. I’m going to go with comedy for my next one because that was horrible.
That totally makes sense.
I can’t tell if it helped or not, but I’m glad that I got it off my chest because I needed to.
And that others going through those things might be able to relate to it.
That was the idea, to say that this is based on something that happened to me, it might happen to you, and to let you know that you aren’t alone. And that’s the best thing that you can do when you’re writing dark fiction based off of your experiences is to know that somebody who’s going through something similar might read it and feel like someone understands them.
Which is so important, especially when you’re a queer person. The media doesn’t represent you and you need to not feel completely alone. You need to find a story that you can see yourself in or circumstances you can relate to so don’t feel alone in the world. I think you really did accomplish that with this book. The fact that this novel focuses exclusively on queer people, was that in response to the mainstream media backlash against any queer-focused piece of media? Like if there’s more than one gay character in anything straight people are like “why does everyone have to be gay?”
Not necessarily, but what I’ve noticed is that most of my friends are queer. Like the way queer people are represented in mainstream media is unrealistic in the way that there’s only one gay person in a group and everyone else is straight. That’s not realistic. We tend to huddle like penguins. That’s just what we do, we congregate.
And it feels so much more comfortable to be around people who are like you, instead of being the token gay person in a straight group and hoping they don’t hate you.
That was kind of the idea with Justin, Kara, and Helena. They all huddled and formed their own tiny community, and Bartleby found them, and I think the only straight person in that ensemble is Gloria. She’s like their honorary grandparent, their very cranky Grandma.
She’s an awesome character too. She’s a badass.
She’s the most powerful character in the entire book, with the exception of the Gods.
Which is awesome, to see an old lady just be a badass and have powers.
It’s my favorite archetype. The badass matriarch.
Yeah, you do love those old ladies who are like I’m gonna fuck shit up.
Okay so in media we get to see a lot of really badass old men, and that’s awesome. You get the Clint Eastwoods and Liam Neesons but you never see it with old women. There’s Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep in a few years probably, and that’s it. And they’re all white. And I wanted badass abuela.
All of the cosmic horror and occult references, and the villains have shades of HP Lovecraft, and I wonder if his work was an inspiration for the book at all?
It very much was. In the early drafts the town and villain names were references to Lovecraft’s work, but I ended up changing that later. It kind of became a joke that I would tell myself while I was writing it was that the reason no Lovecraft protagonist ever survived wasn’t because the horrors were all that horrifying, it was because all of Lovecraft’s protagonists were scared pansy-ass white men. If they were so afraid to see a black man and a white woman in a relationship together, how would they survive Cthulhu?
Yeah, because they were Lovecraft’s Mary Sues.
Exactly, so the idea was that minorities would band together and take revenge.
I love the idea of taking the fictional concepts of an author who is so notoriously racist and racebending it.
Yeah, it was kind of like the original idea I had while I was drafting the universe of the stories.
On your Patreon, you called this Harbinger Island volume 1. Are thinking of continuing the story? Will there be more content in the future?
I have a couple of ideas because these stories take place before the events of the tabletop campaign, where a lot of horrible things happened to one of the towns, so I know what happens next. I know what happens to the characters at the end, like the ones that won’t show up again and some that will. Bartleby will come back obviously, he’s the central figure. So I know what’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when I decide to write that story.
Are you going to follow what happened in the tabletop campaign or go off in another direction?
I think I’m going to follow the overall major catalyst for the tabletop campaign, which is that something terrible happens to the town of Oakridge which is adjacent to the towns of Wakefield and Kerryville, and Bartleby gets trapped there while that happens. So that would be the concept if I do a follow up. Right now I’m focused on some other projects. I just finished a sci-fi adventure novel and I’m trying to find an agent for it. That’s the goal.
What is that project about?
That is called Mercs, it’s about a shadowy corporation that hires a group of cranky mercenaries and bounty hunters to embark on a hostile planet in order to uncover a lost alien treasure. It’s lighter than Harbinger Island, the mercs are more comedic even if they all have tragic backstories.
Oh, of course! You can’t write anything without a tragic backstory!
It’s very exciting, it’s more explosive, it’s epic. I just wanted to do something that was fun.
But it still has some of those moments of depth and sadness and stuff.
Yeah, but for the most part it’s just fun, and I needed the contrast.