Peter Orullian has worked in marketing at Xbox for nearly a decade, most recently leading the Music and Entertainment marketing strategy for Xbox LIVE, and has toured as a featured vocalist internationally at major music festivals. He has published several short stories. The Unremembered is his first novel. He lives in Seattle.
Kristin and John—the good folks here at SF Signal—put a new twist on an old question. For me, anyway. They asked: What fantasy stories influenced The Unremembered.
See, countless are the times a writer is asked about his or her influences. Often it’s a thinly veiled attempt to scrutinize how those influences map to the author’s own work. Fair enough. We are what we read. Kind of. And it’s hard to escape arm-chair psychology. People like answers to the question “why?” And in this day and age, it’s easy to post a pseudo-thoughtful examination of something, and seem all smart and stuff.
And if there’s any part of that particular question—the “what writers influenced you” question—that I don’t like, it’s how much it feels like another question that I really do hate. You’ve heard it. It comes when you tell someone you’ve just bought a new CD, and they ask about the band: Who do they sound like? The question, maybe unintentionally, puts the art in a box. To hell with that.
But truth be told, I don’t mind answering that question: the writing influences thingy. For me, it amounts to an opportunity to tell folks who I think they ought to be reading. I don’t go in for naming writers who are currently working in obscurity—the world failing to note their brilliance—but by gum I know they’re brilliant; and so, I’m maybe just a little bit smarter than you.
Screw that. It’s like cinephiles who only like art-house flicks. If I were going to name current authors as influences, sure, there’d be some lesser known names. But I’d also include bestsellers alongside those “nobodies.” Because, it turns out, even bestselling writers write good stories sometimes.
But that’s not what Kristin and John asked. They didn’t ask about my influences. They asked what stories influenced The Unremembered. There are easy answers to that. And by easy, I mean convenient. Answers folks might expect.
I’m here to disappoint you.
And I plan to do it honestly.
I mean, I could cite how in a very real way Terry Brooks is the father of the modern fantasy genre. Tolkien, sure. But there was a gap between those two guys, wasn’t there. And some writers got going with fantasy in the 70’s. Arguable, Terry put the whole shebang on the map. Many will want to take me up on that argument. Fine. We’ll meet up at a con sometime and debate over a plate of fried cheese. Because no one gets hostile while eating fried cheese.
But I’m not going to talk about Terry, many of whose books I quite like. Nor am I going to talk about those writers who’ve followed him, right up to today’s debut novels, many of which are extolled as “the next thing.” Don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure this year there’ll be another crop of awesome. I’m glad of it. The field grows. We’re better for it.
But when I got this question, I sat and thought about it a good long while. The way I used to in college when I wanted to write a paper for me, to understand something, to try and really get it down on paper, and not just meet the deadline and pull a grade.
Of course, that doesn’t mean this little article is worth a damn. Not for anyone other than myself, anyway. But so you know, what I did was start thinking about books that got inside me, hit chords and resonated in ways I hadn’t felt before. Usually what those kinds of books do is push me to want to write, write more, write better. And past that, they teach me something that finds its way into my own work.
And so when I think about The Unremembered, and what that book was and is, especially with the Author’s Edition that Tor so kindly let me put together, well . . . I tried to think a bit deeper than, “If you examine archtypes and plot structure . . .” Screw that, too.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with a short list of books that changed me in the specific ways I needed to write the Author’s Definitive Edition of The Unremembered (fancy title, that). Works whose themes and tones and ideas and punch all compacted to help me produce my own first fantasy novel—again, the Author’s Edition, mind you.
Here’s how it goes, then, in no particular order:
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Still with me? I know this tale has countless film adaptations at this point. None of which touch Albert Finney’s version, so’s you know. But from this book I learned about regret and change and reclamation. I couldn’t have told you those things mattered specifically to The Unremembered before I wrote it. But I sure as hell can now. In spades.
I don’t start with theme or metaphor or any of that when I write. But once in a while it screams back at me when I’m finished writing a thing. I suspect I’m the only one who hears that. Which is okay, and maybe as it should be. But if you wind up reading the updated version of The Unremembered, and you finish and then let A Christmas Carol roll around your head a little, you might just see what I mean. If you do, dash me a note. Would be cool to chat. Until then, watch and listen to this, and you’ll have a peak into what it means to me to have stared regret in the eye and come out alive on the other side:
The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the same vein as A Christmas Carol, I give you this gothic tale. Here, Hawthorne goes at things like guilt, retribution, and even atonement. As a tangent, it’s where I was introduced to daguerreotypes, which I think are awesome.
The story around this book is that I took an entire course in college on Hawthorne. For a class project, we were split off into teams of about six with the creative assignment of figuring out how we’d sell the House of Seven Gables (the actually mansion), if we had to do so. Our team decided to act as realtors and put together a video with testimonials from the characters of the book. We each played a part. I took Holgrave, a daguerreotypist. Also Holgrave—hole, grave. Is it just me?
Anyway, my teammates were all rich kids. I mean really rich. When it got to my turn in front of the camera, I could see their trepidation: The poor kid’s gonna ruin our fancy video. They asked if I needed help. I humbly declined. I’d written an entire piece in the voice of Holgrave and memorized it the night before. They started filming, and I put on a slight accent and did maybe my best acting ever, delivering on all the reasons someone should buy the haunted mansion from Holgrave’s perspective. Two jaws visibly dropped. Rich jaws. I’m no Morgan Freeman, but I surprised my teammates. A good moment.
Plus, the book has a phantasm. The entire story is sometimes considered an effort by Hawthorne to confront the moral and emotional experience of magic. Again, in retrospect, I can see beneath the covers of my book how this idea got inside my characters. Inside my approach to magic. Buried deep in places, sure. But, yeah. It influenced my book. Hawthorne’s another one I’m always up for chatting about, if you find me at a con sometime.
Boethius. Just Boethius. I’m not going to explain the influence to this one. But Kristin, John, if when book three of my Vault of Heaven series comes out you’d like to have me back, I’ll explain this one. For now, I’ll just leave it there.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I love Stevenson. All his stuff. But this book got deep in my bones. In fact, there may not be an idea or topic more interesting to me than the duality of man. I’ve written stories in this area. Mostly horror stuff. But reading Jekyll and Hyde, and thinking about it, writing endless papers about it, debating it, building fiction atop its tradition . . . it changed me. It made me more tolerant. More skeptical. More at peace with my own flaws, if you can believe it.
Also, horror. I’ve seen most of the adaptations of the book. And the original Broadway production is brilliant. Please don’t watch the David Hasselhoff version. I shivered just typing that last sentence. But if you want an excellent musical representation by a single voice interpreting both sides of this duality, listen to Robert Cuccioli sing “Confrontation” in Jekyll & Hyde.
And here’s the thing. I can’t look at a person—and by extension a character in a book—and not wonder what lies beneath. I can’t not explore it. Excavate the bad stuff that results in who they are. Part of them, anyway. It doesn’t excuse the rotten things they do. But it makes them understandable. Even the “bad guys.” And we don’t always know what torture a person is going through for the sins of their past, right? Even if self-inflicted. It’s the same with good writing. We see it on the page. That torture, I mean. And I put some of it on the pages of my books in this series. So, thanks, Louis. You da man.
Summer of Night, by Dan Simmons. Dan is quite possibly my favorite writer. Ever. In my head, I can still see with perfect clarity the B. Dalton Books shelf where I first encountered him. And it was this book, Summer of Night. The entire back of the book was nothing but a quote by Stephen King. Buried in the quote was this: “Simmons writes like a hot-rodding angel, loading his American nightmare with scares, suspense, and a sweet, surprising nostalgia. This one of those rare must-read books . . . I am in awe of Dan Simmons.”
I was sold.
I devoured Summer of Night. It’s one of the few books I’ve reread. It’s that good.
Its protagonists are young kids, maybe 10-11. Young enough they still believe in the magic. Old enough to need it when the monsters come. This age is my favorite to read and write. If time-travel were possible, I’d go back right now, before even finishing this article. And I might even want to not just be ten again, but live in the 50’s or 60’s. We’ll talk about that another time.
But Simmons’ craft is top drawer. In all respects. From this book I learned about building plausibility and backstory for things that matter. I learned how a single death can cripple a reader, nevermind a battle of thousands or worlds destroyed by space stations. I learned how two characters looking in the same direction can tell you all you need to know about friendship and childhood and leave you with an ache for the characters you’re about to let go of. Unless you immediately reread the book, as I did.
So, then, later, when I got to The Unremembered, firmly imprinted in my hindbrain were the lessons learned from reading Summer of Night. Which isn’t to say I can execute them as well as Simmons does. But I’d be both a poorer reader and writer for not having read that book. Simmons’ work got inside me. And it got inside The Unremembered.
And the upshot probably sounds a little like this track by Disturbed from their album Lost Children. The song is entitled, “Hell.” When you listen to it, note these lyrics:
Soul of the night, when the sun mislead, paint a horror upon you
Marking the moment, displaying in my ghost of a life!
And I can’t get round the way you left me out in the open
To leave me to die!
So how can I forget the way you lead me through the path into Heaven
To leave me behind!
Now I can’t stay behind
Save me, from wreaking my vengeance
Upon you, too chilling more than I can tell
Burning now I bring you Hell!
If you’ve read—or at some point decide to read—The Author’s Edition of The Unremembered, all this will make a ton of sense: the young protagonist(s), friendship, being left in the open to die, the path into Heaven . . . all of it. And it’s not all bleak. I might even say that the harsh early lives of what I call the Wards of the Scar in my book are the bright spots in my fantasy world—The Vault of Heaven.
So yeah. Simmons.
Night Shift, by Stephen King. And more specifically, “I Am the Doorway” and “The Lawnmower Man” and “The Last Rung on the Ladder.” See, Night Shift is a collection of King’s short stories—his first collection. And I owe it a hell of a lot.
Up until I graduated from high school, most of my reading was directed by my studies. Then, in the Oahu airport—on my way back from my graduation trip—I picked up Night Shift in an airport curio shop. The flight home changed my life. I started to see fiction in a whole new way.
That summer, I started trying my hand at a few short stories. Several years later, here we are.
More than any other writer, Stephen King teaches me voice. His characters sound like people I’ve known for years. And I’m always a little sad when I leave them. In these short stories, in particular, I was hit with imaginative scenarios—scenarios that seem preposterous if you just say them out loud—but which are written about with such authenticity that you almost assume they happened somewhere. These tales, and others in Night Shift, also taught me about endings that knock the wind out of you, like with “The Last Rung on the Ladder.” I won’t spoil that story for you, but it haunts me still. I want to go inside the world of that story and change the outcome. I want to help those characters.
Tragic impotence. Not just mine for the characters, but the characters for one another. The idea of inaction causing pain. The counter idea that faith in a brother is as powerful a magic as there is. And that even so, sometimes people fail you. These things and more have stayed with me from Night Shift and its many brilliant stories. And these things—again, as I reflected back after the Author’s Edition of The Unremembered was long since turned in—they most definitely influenced the book.
It’s another thing I think you’ll understand if you wind up reading the updated Unremembered. Otherwise, you may take my word for it.
And because—as you’ve no doubt figured out— I always have a music corollary, I’ll leave you with a list of songs by one of my favorite bands—Dream Theater. It’s not something I expect many will do, but if you dig through the lyrics and feelings and power of these songs, and if you put them in the context of both Night Shift and the Author’s Edition of The Unremembered, there are all kinds of resonances. Like crazy lots. Here’s the list, and I’ll link just one, so I don’t overwhelm you: “Another Day,” “To Live Forever,” Wither,” “Misunderstood,” “Beneath the Surface.” And here’s “Through Her Eyes”: