By Anita Daher
Multi-award-winning author Shane Peacock jokes that he is from a place that doesn’t exist. A perfect start for someone who conjures up character and place. That place is Port Arthur, one of two towns that amalgamated to become Thunder Bay. He grew up in northern Ontario, in the town of Kapuskasing. With a particular fascination for the Victorian era, he has written a dozen novels and one picture book. He is also a documentarian and a playwright.
In Peacock’s most recent novel, The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim (Tundra Books), we meet a most unusual young hero. Edgar Brim was born with a gift which is also a curse. He sinks so deeply into the stories he reads that it is like he is living them, experiencing every taste, scent and painful encounter as if he were one of the characters—so much so that when he encounters Bram Stoker’s just published novel, Dracula, he can only read it in small bites. And yet, he loves story. Brim is also afraid—anxious—of many things, with good reason. Despite this fear, which is rooted in his core and colours everything he encounters and imagines, he is eventually compelled to join an important mission with a secret society sworn to find and destroy dark horrors. There is a mystery to solve, a death to avenge and lives to protect.
Peacock’s writing, which captivated so many in his Boy Sherlock Holmes breakout series, is even stronger here in this first book of a new trilogy. Monsters, mysteries and historical figures are well-researched and put to work in this brilliant, terrifying and dark read. It is the realm of nightmares, yet within are silken strands of comfort and wisdom. In Edgar Brim we have another young hero we relish opportunity to spend time with again and again.
I recently pulled Shane away from (I hope) writing the next book in this series to answer a few questions.
Most of us are well chilled from another Canadian winter and looking forward to a gentler season. What would Edgar Brim say is the most important accessory or article of clothing to carry oneself through a winter on the moors?
Confidence, courage and not thinking too much about the elements would be his best accessories. Edgar and the other students at the creepy College on the Moors aren’t allowed to wear anything other than the school uniform, featuring red and black colours, so he had no choice about clothing. Attitude, not the clothes themselves, would be the only thing that would get him through harsh times and weather. Kind of like us Canadians!
You’ve used an omniscient point of view in this novel, which is somewhat unusual in YA literature. Is it a point of view you prefer, or does it depend on the story?
I try not to think about what is usually done in a YA novel when I’m writing one. The point of view definitely depends on the story. I know there are all sorts of YA novels that go for that quirky kid’s voice, but that didn’t seem to fit The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim. I wanted this voice to be one that seemed to be telling the truth about this strange lad’s strange life and circumstances in a strange time and space, not just a subjective interpretation. When you have elements of fantasy in a story, you want to make that story as real as possible. I generally don’t like fantasy, often because it isn’t believable to me—characters walk through doors or walls and are suddenly in fantastic realms or in the past or future, or they encounter terrible danger and are released from it by the sudden introduction of a “fantastic” solution (deus ex machina). Those sorts of occurrences just don’t work for me. I’d say that Edgar Brim is ninety per cent realistic, full of historical details and real-life situations and problems, with a little dash of fantasy. I’m a sort of an impressionist as a writer. The omniscient voice just helps make Edgar’s story more realistic, more plausible and hopefully more effective and meaningful.
The Victorian era is one you have set your writings in before. What fascinates you so much about it, and were there any surprises or tangles this time around?
I indeed love that era, having featured it in The Boy Sherlock Holmes and other writings. I think it’s because that era occurred during a time before there was any film—moving pictures, as it were—but after the invention of photography. So we can see still images of Victorians, but they don’t move. I love the idea of making them move, bringing a time period that is visible, but also in a sense just beyond our grasp, to life. Readers often say they like being taken to “other worlds,” but I like taking them to “real worlds” that are also “other” in a sense. I also love so many of the people who populated the Victorian age—Dickens, Disraeli, Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and Sir Richard Francis Burton—and the fact that it was a time when things were changing so rapidly, going from monarchical control to democracy, from horses and buggies to trains and the beginnings of flight and motor cars, from unquestioned belief in religions to other beliefs, the emergence of the idea of human evolution, etc. The Edgar Brim story had it challenges because I was introducing the idea that some of the monsters from that era’s literature might be, in some way, real. I had to toy a little with Victorian history and reality to make that work.
If you could sit down and have a meal during this time, what would it be, and who (if anyone) would you like to dine with?
Well, thank goodness I’m not a vegetarian because there would be a lot of meat. It wouldn’t be healthy! Dickens (who was known to his friends as “the inimitable,” and he was!) would have been a sensational dinner guest, theatrical, full of energy and ideas and great stories. But I could hardly pass up inviting Bram Stoker too, to discuss Dracula, since he plays such a big role in The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, and I would have loved to have dined with Sir Henry Irving too, the most revered and famous man in England at the time. I would have absolutely loved to see him perform. That would have been sensational.
I’d also be fascinated to have Mary Shelley as a dinner guest. Though her fame comes from pre-Victorian days when she wrote Frankenstein, she lived well into the Victorian era. She was an amazing lady, empowered and brave, who lived an amazing life, a woman all women these days should know about.
Your character names—Professor Lear, Numb, the porter named Usher—are absolutely perfect. They are not only memorable, but often encapsulate your characters occupations or personalities. How do you decide on names for your characters? Do you agonize over them, or do they occur to you spontaneously while writing?
Thank you. I do agonize (great word for any Edgar Brim discussion!) over my characters’ names for the most part, because I want them not only to immediately convey a feeling about that character, but also to say something about the character and contribute to the subtext and meaning of the story. However, there are times when a character’s name comes to me instantly. I just see them and feel them in my imagination and know they must have that particular name. Lear is obviously very wise and learned, Usher very Poe, so they took a little bit of thought, but Numb, he just seemed to me to not have any humanity, or feelings… so I instantly called him on it.
Each character is so full and interesting they might have equally engaging stories all their own. Outside of Edgar, who is your favourite, and why?
I like little William Shakespeare. He is such a bizarro, a lunatic, as are his three invisible friends (who are caricatures of the main characters in The Pickwick Papers). But readers may find that he is not what he seems as the trilogy continues. You will start to see him evolving in the second novel, Monster, which comes out in the fall of 2017, and then evolve more in the final novel. I really enjoyed creating the characters in this trilogy. The four main ones—Edgar, Tiger, Lucy and Jonathan—are manifestations of human reactions to fear (and fear is really what the whole work is about), and each embodies either a “masculine” or “feminine” approach, or a combination. Some reviewers don’t get that and wonder why Lucy, for example, seems so feminine, or why Tiger such a mixture. Tiger seems to be a favourite of readers. I hope it isn’t immodest to say I can see why.
There are aspects of this novel that are wrenching, even brutal. Was there anything in particular you wrote that made you think this may be too graphic, or is that even something you think about while writing?
I try to tell the truth about my story and my characters and the story’s meaning as I write, so I try not to worry to much about, for example, brutality, if that is what is called for in a novel, just as I shouldn’t worry about a story dealing with goodness and love and kindness when that is called for. Telling the truth is what matters in literature and art. This is a novel about fear and fear is not a pleasant thing. If you present it as pleasant, or at least innocuous, you aren’t doing your job. There were some moments in the manuscript that worried my editors and we changed a few things to tone it down, believe it or not. There is a scene toward the end of the novel where the monster has the main characters at his mercy on a famous theatre’s stage in London. In the original, I had him assaulting the two females while the main character watched. But we changed it so the creature attacks the males too. My editors felt the original was just too creepy, but my approach was that we were dealing with true evil, and I wanted to bring that out. I didn’t want to compromise in any way. But we changed it… to equal opportunity evil! It is funny how nowadays there is so much darkness in so many stories, both in novels and on the screen, but we choose the sort of evil that is acceptable to convey. Some evils are more palatable (and cooler!) in our current world than others.
There are frightening things happening around your main characters that they must face, but there is also the fear inside. Was this underlying theme of fear and anxiety intentional or something that surprised you?
The underlying theme of fear is very much intentional. In fact, it is not only the basis of the whole trilogy but the entire reason I am writing it. My whole motivation was to write something about fear. Edgar Brim is filled with fear and his main mission in The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim is not just to kill the monsters that haunt him but also to kill his fear. We live in a world that is absolutely filled with fear. It is the reason Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States—he used people’s fears, amorphous, irrational fears, to get elected. Young people have so many fears these days and countless, it seems, suffer from problems with anxiety. The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim explores fear, and in particular the fears of the four young people who are its main characters, and especially the deep-seated anxiety of Edgar Brim. I chose the genre of Teen Gothic Horror to bring this out. The novels also explore classic horror stories and the motivation behind those particular books and that sort of literature in general.
Anxiety manifesting in varying forms is a huge difficulty for so many young people. Do you think this is unusual to this period in time, and if yes, have you any thoughts on why?
It indeed seems that anxiety is a big twenty-first century problem, though I have no doubt that it has always plagued human beings to some degree. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of a late nineteenth-century kid who essentially has an anxiety disorder, without ever saying as much, since such problems weren’t named in those days. In Victorian days, if you were a male and succumbing to such pressures, you were “unmanly.” The solution to your worries was to simply “be a man!” That’s one reason why Edgar is male, and why two of his friends who pursue the monsters with him are female and male. They all exhibit traditional female-male reactions to fear and anxiety. I’m not saying that’s how all males and females react to fear, just that we have often categorized the reactions along gendered lines. I’m not sure why there is more anxiety in our time. But I am shocked at the number of young people who have problems with it. We seem to live in a very self-conscious time, a time when humanity as a whole, and we as individuals, thinks a great deal about ourselves. I’m not immune to that. I’ve struggled with anxiety myself at times, and I think many writers and artists do, since we are experts about worrying about the human condition, and about ourselves. We try to “become” our characters and live out our tense stories and sometimes that backfires on us. The solution to fear and anxiety, if there is one, may simply be to do. That is what Edgar Brim tries to do. He swings into action, trying to face his fears and to kill them. His attempt to kill the monsters is his attempt to kill his fears.
What kind of monster, real or imagined, scares you most?
An inner one.
What’s next for you?
I am doing way too many things! I just finished the second Edgar Brim (Monster) and am about to begin the third (possibly entitled Devil or The Devil), but I’m also working on a new picture book, since I enjoyed writing The Artist and Me so much, and a novel for adults. As well, I’m developing ideas for my next YA/Teen projects. I’m thinking about a really strange story next, and also a romance, believe it or not, since I’ve come up with a concept that I really like. I’ll try not to make it too dark!
Read more about the author and his books at http://shanepeacock.ca.