Interview with Broodhollow / Candle Cove’s Kris Straub
Kris Straub is one of the funniest writers of creepy fiction online. His stories have scared audiences in the hundreds of thousands and his comics have both scared and delighted them. In his fourteen years of creating material for the web he has created several classics that will be no doubt be homaged and ripped off for years to come, especially his story Candle Cove which has practically gone from a scary story to an urban legend.
All that and he was willing to answer our questions!
Checkerboard Nightmare. It ran from 2000 to 2005, and was kind of a meta send-up of the webcomics culture — which is weird for a first effort. But I had read webcomics for a couple of years, and I noticed all these devices and tropes used in each of them, and whenever I identify something like that I want to subvert it immediately.
What was the sign that this was a habit that paid off enough to invest more than a decade in it?
I did a ridiculous “contest” in 2003, in keeping with the spirit of the first comic — the main character Chex was a lazy, desperate egomaniac, and I called the contest “Chex For Sale.” If you donated any amount of money, you’d be entered to “win” having to write two weeks of the comic for me, and I’d draw it. I expected to make $5, but I made close to $800. It was the first inkling I had that people could be financially supportive of what I was doing.
In 2005, you started a webcomic called Starslip, which is about the travels of the type of space ship that needs to put up a “DO NOT MAKE UP PROBLEMS” sign in navigation. What inspired that comic?
That again came from my need to subvert expectations about a sci-fi strip. Technobabble is just a storytelling excuse, and while I enjoy it — and am a huge Star Trek fan — it feels like it gets in the way sometimes.
What were some of the highlights of doing that project?
Starslip is a love letter to science fiction I’ve loved — the three main characters are archetypes from those stories. Vanderbeam is Star Trek: The Next Generation, Cutter is Star Wars, and Mr. Jinx is Alien. The characters became very real to me and spoke very clearly in my head. I also got to play with devices I always thought were overused in Star Trek, which is my favorite sci-fi universe. In Star Trek the Enterprise always runs into species and beings who secretly are fascinated by humans, who want to be human, who think humans are the best. It’s like humanity self-insert fanfic. If an omnipotent being like Q encountered humanity, would he really be fascinated? Are we really that complex and interesting? I don’t think so. I think that’s why doing cosmic horror for my next project was a good step.
What were some of the low points (if you feel comfortable discussing them?)
I have always been pretty bad about self-promotion, and understanding how to pitch or present my work. So when Starslip wasn’t getting the traffic I wanted, I was stuck as to how to let people know what it was about, to interest them. And I made some kinda careless on-the-fly decisions with stories and characters that I had to undo, that I regretted. The lesson was for me to have more faith in my first impulse, and not to cater to what I think an audience wants to see.
In 2012, the last strip of Starslip was a plug for the new series Broodhollow. What made you feel the need to change focus?
I told pretty much all of the stories I wanted to tell in Starslip, and non-A-story arcs started to feel like padding. I had this weird kind of revelation with time travel in the story, too, that depending on how much or how little detail you give your audience, you can make anything stick and have it seem like you were always planning that. That must be how a lot of stories are written, and it’s great that amazing things can arise organically, but at the time I thought “we want to see patterns so desperately that we forgive anything if it just kinda resembles symmetry.” If I had plotted out all of Starslip from the beginning I might have felt differently, but it felt like I was just adding decoration to the outside.
Broodhollow is charming and fun, but I want it to also be upsetting. It’s set up like an adventure comic, and there are many fun character moments and triumphs, and cute bats, and a possible budding romance. The townspeople are adorably drawn. But I didn’t want to pull punches with the horror. I’m also trying to be judicious about what horror means. I don’t like slasher movies, I don’t like gore porn. This is not horror to me. Horror is the sudden realization that you will one day not exist; that you will never truly understand anything; that you may see a ghost, but that doesn’t mean ghosts are real. It means you’re sick. And that means those visions will only torment you. The main character, Zane, gets all his fears and dreams from me. I guess — a new reader can look forward to my self-therapy sessions in comic form.
Broodhollow was received 470% of its goal on Kickstarter. How much of a surprise was this?
A huge surprise. I had asked, initially, for what I thought was an obscene amount of money — but I checked my math many times, it was the minimum I could ask for — and instead of it being a 30-day slog to the goal, we made it in 6 hours.
What’s your favorite page from Broodhollow?
The one that stands out is in the first book, without giving too much away — Zane has figured out what’s going on with the ghost he keeps seeing, and he goes back to where he saw her last, hammer in hand. And as readers, we’re excited to see him resolute, and not acting like a victim, but he’s also clearly losing it. And we see that his leaping into action comes at a cost.
What seems to be your readers’ favorite part?
Readers really like the cute things! As a respite I guess! Zane has a pet bat named Mercy. They have a Tintin/Milou, Gyro Gearloose/Helper vibe together on the page. And readers have really responded to Iris too. In the second book she’s getting a lot more story devoted to her.
You also have a much less structured comic called Chainsawsuit. What’s that one usually about?
Chainsawsuit is three panels a day about whatever came to mind. If you go through the archives, you can tell when Hell’s Kitchen is on the air, because there are rich, deep veins of Gordon Ramsay jokes.
What’s your favorite among those comics?
Chainsawsuit is an enigma to me, in that I’ll do a strip which I think is a home run, and no one cares about it. Then the next day, depleted, I’ll throw something up that I’m embarrassed by, and it’s the one that everyone likes. I don’t know, man.
And now we turn to the subject of Candle Cove, the story of a forum thread about a local kid’s show from the 1970s for your short story collection Ichor Falls that has gone viral. How do you feel about how popular that story is?
This is another one of these things I have done in a hurry that really resonated with people! Candle Cove must have been written vaguely enough that it let everyone apply their own childhood fears to it.
I had a lot of strange discomfort around old television — specifically KLCS, a public television station in Southern California. They didn’t have the budget that KCET, the big-boy PBS affiliate had, so most of their programming was bad work prints of 1970s filmstrips for classrooms. One of these was called “Inside Out,” and it explored social mores through a scripted play. But the play was open-ended — after the film stopped, the teacher was supposed to lead a discussion, to ground what the students just watched. But there’s no teacher at home to do that! If there was a workbook that came with the series, I didn’t have it. I watched these alone, on summer vacation, while my parents were at work, these morality plays designed to be unfinished, uncertain. In that context they were really, really terrifying.
Which, if any, of the unofficial sequels written for it are your favorites?
Oh man, none of them are my favorites. The reason is that they all try very hard to explain what Candle Cove is, when not knowing is why the story resonated. There’s this string of fanfics where it’s revealed that Candle Cove is the work of an old Nazi named Altman Bachmeier. You tell me why a Nazi would be hanging out in West Virginia or Kentucky in 1971, and why he’d bother making a puppet show to scare kids. I guess “Nazi” is shorthand for “the most evil thing anyone can think of.”
Of the Ichor Falls stories, which one is your favorite?
I love The Stillwood King. I used a little of that concept for the first Broodhollow book. My favorite though would have to be Lemon Blossom Girl, which is about a young man who encounters a traveling mummy exhibit at odd points in his life, and believes the mummy is aware and using museums to get close to him, and enter his dreams. I wrote it after seeing the Lemon Grove Girl in San Diego’s Museum of Man, which is as I describe the mummy in the story — a desiccated thing with jet black hair, even after thousands of years.
If you could, how would you redistribute the popularity of the Ichor Falls stories? Would it be more evenly, are you fine with having a signature story?
I’m fine with Candle Cove being the one! People can’t even explore the Ichor Falls stories right now even if I wanted them to — I changed servers and forgot to back up the database. I still have them, I just have to re-enter them like a dope.
(NOTE: You can buy them in paperback through Amazon here)
One of our previous interview subjects, Jonathan Wojcik, mentioned that there was a movie production of the story that didn’t even try to contact you or anything because they thought the story was public domain. What was that experience like?
The great problem with the internet — that I think we’re actually overcoming — is the idea that content just springs out of nowhere, for free, for everyone to enjoy and profit from. And I have to walk this line of being excited that people like my work enough to do stuff like that, while having to be the “bad guy” and say you’re actually not allowed to make a movie based on someone else’s property.
The worst case was this urban legends TV show in Uruguay that actually made puppets and sets, for a 10-minute-long Unsolved Mysteries-esque “expose” of this American legend. They had some lore expert and everything making up how no one knew where Candle Cove came from. It was the first time I had to find a lawyer and make threats, and it happened at the same time I was talking to a production company about film rights. I was not built for that kind of thing. I wanted to throw up every night.
Speaking of CC tributes, what’s your favorite from the pile?
There have been some really good readings on YouTube, and some very polished pieces on DeviantArt. Honestly if the Uruguay show had contacted me and gotten my permission, I would have liked theirs best. Instead I’m furious with them.
What projects have you got planned next?
I’m still working on a creepypasta review series for the Chainsawsuit Original YouTube channel, and I’ve been doing a fun podcast with author and creator Mikey Neumann for coming up on a whole year now, along with animations and an interview webseries with him and rotating guests. And the second Broodhollow story is running on the site, about halfway finished now!
Thank you very much for your time.
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