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Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and 'brainmaking' in 'The R.U.S.H.'

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Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and ‘brainmaking’ in ‘The R.U.S.H.’

The beguiling tale of the Yukon gold rush drops in October.

There are few comics writers working today like Si Spurrier. Whether it’s creator-owned titles like Godshaper, or series like Way of X and Hellblazer, Spurrier effortlessly taps into comic lore and general history/culture to build lush worlds for his inventive and nuanced narratives. However, he may have reached a new career high with his latest endeavor, T.H.E. R.U.S.H.

The series, short for “This Hungry Earth Reddens Under Snowclad Hills,” takes place in the Yukon Territory circa 1899. Amid a “frozen frontier, bloodied and bruised by the last great Gold Rush,” we meet a woman searching for her lost son. Toss in a mysterious stranger, and other residents of a town where “gold and blood are mined alike,” and this chilling western-horror will have you reeling long after you’ve cracked open issue #1.

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For a better understanding of the project, Spurrier was kind enough to touch base via email, where he offered up a massive deep dive into nearly every facet of the series. That includes his endless historical research, working with artist Nathan Gooden (and other collaborators), connections and commonalities to his other books, the way to create proper horror, and much, much more.

T.H.E. R.U.S.H. #1 is due out October 27 via Vault Comics.

Si SpurrierAIPT: What was it about this area/time period/event/etc. that spoke to you personally? Are there things that people don’t know about the Klondike rush that they should?

Si Spurrier: Too many strange and wonderful personal testimonies to mention. It’s a time and place just soaked in stories.

Let’s kaleidoscope a little. Imagine a thousand men per day inching step-by-step up a near vertical mountain pass, so tightly packed that any who dared step off the path for a break will be stuck there, freezing, for hours, waiting for an empty space. Imagine snow drifting over the corpses of innumerable dead horses, worked to death carrying useless overpriced supplies from the mud-flats on the coast. Imagine stampeders who expect to find gold littering the ground when they arrive in the Yukon — courtesy of fanciful gossip spread by travel agents and outfit suppliers — discovering instead, after unthinkable hardships, that every inch of frozen dirt had to be melted by brazier before a pickaxe would even dent it. Discovering, in fact, that it would take months of back-breaking labor to reach bedrock, and that even then the chances of a bonanza waiting in the darkness of the shaft was next to nil. Imagine lawlessness masquerading as shared adversity and camaraderie. Picture the different cultures on either side of the border – the decadence and violence of the Alaskan shore, the cold rigidity of the Canadian camps.

And ponder the secret of all boomtowns: the gold never sleeps in the hand that found it.

The last great stampede was an exceptionally well-recorded episode, despite its sheer out-of-the-ordinaryness. That’s gold of a narrative kind, right there. There are innumerable stories of tenacity, suffering and determination. Countless tales of perfectly sane and settled individuals dropping everything and setting off on a year-long odyssey of torture, starvation, scurvy and frost. Risking everything for a dream. A rumor. A shred of a whispered hope: that somehow, at the other end, transformative wealth awaited.

These are classic themes to host a dose of supernatural horror, of course. You get down to it, it’s Faust with huskies and a rifle.

But then… you read even deeper… you discover that what’s really fascinating about the Klondike rush isn’t that so many people died, or that so many more came home in destitution and disappointment. It’s not even the mania itself that creates such fertile ground for stories. It’s that ultimately, despite this impossible thirst for gold that gripped so many people all across the world, becoming rich wasn’t the goal. Not really. Not in practice.

Of all the great Bonanza Kings, those lucky few who became insanely wealthy in a flash, who thought nothing of spending a fortune every night in the bars and brothels of Dawson, almost all ended up destitute. Some made and lost several fortunes in a row. They just couldn’t keep the gold. Yet all of them, later in life, remembered this strange dreamlike period with fondness. Like they’d gone through a fiery crucible and come out stronger. Like they’d survived a war.

As one of our characters puts it: “the madness that’s in all these men, that’s hauled them out here to the tail-end of creation… it’s for striking gold, sure. But it doesn’t extend so far as to keeping the damn stuff.”

In short: this is an extremely strange time and place, with a lot of heightened emotion.

To say that this fits beautifully into the things that drive me as a storyteller — myth and mytheme, obsession and devotion, horror and love — is a really f-----g enormous understatement. It’s a sheer joy to introduce notes of the supernatural into this fertile soil, and themes which speak to the total opposite of the stampede instinct. Selfless devotion. This, after all, is a story about the only person in a far flung boomtown, during the last frenzied months of the rush, who doesn’t give a s--t about gold.

Nettie Bridger has come to find her son. And there are horrors blocking her path.

Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and 'brainmaking' in 'The R.U.S.H.'

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: What was the research process like for this? You’d mentioned in the press about a “hitherto unexplored geekiness for history” — is this story, then, a kind of geeky challenge to balance historical accuracy with literary license?

SS: It’s a challenge, for sure – but a wonderful one. The geekiness tends to express itself as a joy in research that would otherwise be onerous.

It’s a bit weird, to be honest. For the past couple of years things have been so stressful – parenthood, apocalypse, mental health struggles and innumerable other challenges – that I’ve become incapable of reading fiction with pleasure. My guilt spins out of control (you should be working, fucko!), my brain won’t accept stories without judgement (well *I* wouldn’t have written it like that), my narrative arrogance keeps tripping itself up (I know how this is going to end) and I just can’t separate myself from analysis. It’s entirely a product of control, of course. When one feels like one’s life (and mind) is beyond all ability to steer, imposing this sort of fanatical organisation on whimsical things is, I guess, natural. Still, I’ve discovered that the remedy for all this is to trick myself. To focus on non-fiction and wallow in it as a breeding ground for ideas. That way, whether a new project emerges or not – as it did with my sudden obsession with the Yukon rush – it feels like time well spent. I’ve gone through multiple similar fascinations, most of which lead nowhere except a smile and a good night’s sleep.

Gah. What a ghastly condition. I hope it passes. I miss novels.

AIPT: How hard is it to nail the language of the time? And do you think that’s an essential part of the immersion and nailing the larger “feel” of this series?

SS: It’s pretty hard, but rewarding. There’s always a balancing act between pure historical accuracy and instinctive gratification. A few of the most common terms of the era sound frankly quite absurd to our ears, having been unfairly mistreated during the intervening decades. Luckily the reality of the Yukon Rush was that most of the prospectors – be they sourdoughs or cheechakos – came from farflung parts of the US or the wider world, so it’s relatively safe to use language and slang imported from other climes.

I’ve always been a talky sort of writer — I have to say everything out loud twice before I’m happy with it — and there’s something deliciously silky about overwrought Victorian erudition. I particularly live for those moments that a character who’s been affecting a baroque Ever-So-Respectable syntax suddenly lets the veil drop and swears like a sailor.

(It helps enormously that Hass is a master of lettering, and one can hear his words as readily as one reads them.)

Language is a vital part of worldbuilding, basically, yes. Whether it’s an invented vocabulary or one that’s slavishly researched, a tale screams real when the reader senses that characters have a shared cultural system of communication which goes beyond meaning and hints at class, age, prejudice, political persuasion.

Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and 'brainmaking' in 'The R.U.S.H.'

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: The book’s about the territory’s gold rush, and you describe it in part as people trying to realize “the impossible dream of striking it rich in the barren, bitter lands.” With Bitcoin and people endlessly attempting to go viral, do some of these same ideas and sentiments still ring true today?

SS: I think Want is a pretty timeless and universal theme, for sure. As is the fleeting phantom of a transformative fortune. Like… most of us probably know deep down that it almost never happens like that, and that when it does the true prize — happiness — doesn’t necessarily obtain. Still. We yearn for it.

I think the deeper analysis we dig into in The Rush is even more interesting, though. This uncomfortable suspicion that what was truly motivating all those gold-crazed stampeders wasn’t the hope of a wealthy lifestyle, but something that spoke more to the fear of missing out. What drove them crazy wasn’t lust for gold, but the terror that someone else might get it all before they did. Greed is just territorialism with added product, in that light. As I mentioned before, the stark reality is that of those who did make their fortunes, almost all of them either lost it all just as fast, or discovered they were f-----g miserable anyway.

This, needless to say, is a very handy psychological gap into which one can pour monsters and myths. Like… people say “the journey is more important the destination” when they talk about story. Mostly they’re wrong. Stories must have endings to matter. But the sentiment does have some axiomatic power in the context of desire.

All humans are programmed to want. The problem is that we’re not very good at Having.

AIPT: There’s a lot of great talent involved here: artist Nathan Gooden, colorist Addison Duke, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. What was the collaborative process like, and is it “hard” to balance such prolific and hugely busy names?

SS: Oh god, it’s not hard at all. It’s a dream. Every part of the team is working at the top of their game, prodigiously busy or otherwise. Nathan in particular was born to draw this book. That rare, hen’s-teeth wonder of iconic-yet-realistic. He can sell period grime, unnerving horror and glamorous beauty all in the same panel. That’s a helluva trick. Dress it up in Addison’s classily understated hues and Hass’s uncannily synesthetic voices and you’ve got something quite wonderful on your hands. And that’s before the monsters even arrive.

I think the greatest challenge comes close to the end of the process. We’re all such perfectionists there’s this fastidious tennis game of bug hunting and fine tuning. I fear for my editor’s blood pressure, I really do.

AIPT: I’m thinking about some of your other books, like The Spire and Godshaper, that have these huge, expertly built worlds and mythos. Did those projects help at all in focusing on a historical horror story?

SS: Worlds should feel functional above all else, if only so that we can safely ignore them and focus on the stories that live there.

Verisimilitude works the same way whether it’s an entirely invented world or one that did exist but has been forgotten. You can’t halfass it. And you can’t muck around with the exaggerated stuff – magical realism, absurdism, horror, whatever it may be – until you’ve got the functional stuff nailed down.

Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and 'brainmaking' in 'The R.U.S.H.'

Variant Cover by Tim Daniel. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: Your writing is so diverse and multifaceted. Do you actively try to cater the language and tone depending upon not just the project but the work of the artist themselves?

SS: Yes, absolutely. Scripts are quite intimate and private documents, ultimately. The fact that I’m unconsciously taking quite a pompous tone for this interview, emulating the affectations of Victoriania, tells you that I’m basically a tonal weathervane. The same’s true – more so, even – in scripts. Some are conversational, some are like letters to an illicit lover, others are formal missives to a respected notable. It’s different for every project and every artist. What’s really interesting is how the tone changes during the course of the working relationship.

AIPT: We here at AIPT have been huge fans of your work with Way of X. Coming off that project, even if there’s been a gap or whatnot, does that impact this story at all? Does it make you want to cut loose, or is it a kind of palate cleanser at all?

SS: Ah, thank you — delighted you’ve been enjoying it. It’s quite an unusual set of themes and preoccupations to fit into a superhero canon – I’m actually quite amazed at how well it’s gone down. If “it’s not like most spandex stuff” is all anyone ever said about it, I’d still think it a win. Anything to avoid homogeneity.

As for coming off projects: alas, the realities of publishing means that I was working on WoX and R.U.S.H. — and several other projects, in fact — in parallel. It’s a rare privilege to be able to start and conclude a single story without breaking it up with other chapters of other tales.

It’s actually one of the single most difficult parts of being a professional comic book writer. The need to change gears, shift mood and tone, maintain momentum despite the changes in tonal altitude. (But it always feels churlish to complain about it, because what it amounts to is “I have too much work and therefore deserve your sympathy”. It’s a privilege problem.)

Having grown at least partially accustomed to it — the ceaseless conveyor belt of comic book brainmaking; the fundamental disappointment of disposability — I’d hazard that the greatest joy a keyboard monkey like me can hope for is to have a healthy breadth of projects on the slate at any one time. Leaping from horror to sci-fi to experimental fantasy, from spandex to realism, from crime drama to cop adventure – not to mention bouncing from comics to prose to screenplay. That’s a real joy, if you can handle the pivots.

Plus – and I can’t give much away here – “coming off” Way of X was really just a couple months’ hiatus before diving into… well… what comes next. About which: ssshh. But there was never really a sense of taking the foot off the gas.

AIPT: Vault has an amazing track record regarding great horror. How important, if at all, is it to have that kind of background or publisher when releasing this specific book?

SS: It’s reassuring to know they’ve got a great handle on all the stuff I don’t, above all. Like… it’s a common refrain in certain sectors of the Creator Owned sphere that “I didn’t realize I’d have to be good at [X] as well as, y’know, making comics.” Sales, logistics, PR, Marketing, management, etc. etc. Having an infrastructure in place that supports you with all those things – that lets you focus on being creative – that’s priceless.

That these guys have had a run of great successes in horror speaks, I suspect, to the enthusiasm and perspicacity of the Wassel brothers – their instinct for good comics, in any genre – rather than some nascent pigeonhole passion. To give just one example, I’ve been particularly impressed by Adrian’s instinct for pacing, which after all is the heart and soul of all sequential narrative. He’s rescued me from more than one sticky pacing fix.

Si Spurrier talks history, horror, and 'brainmaking' in 'The R.U.S.H.'

Variant Cover by Martin Simmonds. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: The book involves a kind of mysterious stranger that plays a major role. Do you know what that character represents, and thus might reveal it at some point, or is it better to encourage readers to make their own assumptions?

SS: Ha. Nice try. I’m saying nothing. But all our secrets — well, most of them — are revealed by the end of the tale.

For what it’s worth, I could waffle endlessly about conventional Wild West tropes — about the mytheme of the lone stranger who fights for the new reality despite being part of the old order, and despite having no place in the world they create. Tragic remnants, fighting for their own superfluousness.

…except that’s not what’s happening [in this book]. The mysterious stranger you refer to — he’s known as The Pale — is just one monstrous part of a wider mystery that we slowly, painfully, bloodily, slice open.

What I particularly love is that we frequently feature our characters speculating about the mystery. I always get annoyed in mystery fictions that supposedly smart characters don’t do the obvious thing: asking the right questions, pondering the why and the how. We’ve flipped that lazy convention on its head. In the mining town at the center of our tale, the question of “why are things so strange here?” has become a defining culture in its own right.

AIPT: How do you approach proper horror storytelling? I feel like you’re so skilled at building the ambiance, and that is a genuinely lost art in many other horror stories that instantly want to terrify readers.

SS: Pace.

Pace is comics and comics is pace. Horror lies in the things you don’t show, and in comics the story lies in the gaps between panels. It’s the same thing. For all our tricks and gimmicks, all we’re really doing as storytellers is finding sneaky ways to make the audience do the hard work, and controlling the speed that they do it.

AIPT: Why should anyone pick up issue #1?

SS: Because you know Deadwood, The Terror, and Princess Mononoke are all works of art, and now you’re wondering what it would be like if someone could mix their distinct vibes together.

Because you love history and monsters, and stories of love and betrayal and blood.

Because Victor Lavalle called it “a chilling bit of historical horror, rugged and raw and thoroughly researched. It’s got such a wonderfully creepy sense of menace but most of all it’s the moving story of a mother searching for her child, that’s its beating heart. Wonderful work.”

Because Garth Ennis called it “a splendidly savage tale of frontier scum and the doom they’ve brought down upon themselves, and the innocents cursed to suffer alongside them. I for one can’t wait to see more.”

Because I’m really proud of it.

Because all that glitters is not gold.

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