Ubo author Steve Rasnic Tem: “Violence is my biggest fear”

Steve Rasnic Tem writes about channelling his biggest fear in Ubo


A simple prompt I’ve often given students is “write a story about your biggest fear.” As you might expect it’s an important exercise for horror writers. It encourages a kind of self-inventory. It’s a chance to gauge where you are. Quite possibly if you attempt the exercise at various times in your life you will excavate a different set of anxieties and neuroses. And how you execute this writing assignment—whether a straight-on description of horrors or something more elliptical, perhaps using a protagonist whose situation is far removed from that of your own—may very well reveal aspects of yourself you hadn’t even realised were there. I encourage students to play with it, to try different approaches and techniques. The fact that they should be rather familiar with the subject matter allows them to focus on the more technical aspects of telling a story.

Violence is my biggest fear. I’ve experienced it in my own life and I expect to experience it again. Violence appalls me. It disgusts me. I’m not talking about the play violence of a hockey or a football game. I’m talking about the violence that kills, the violence that maims, the bullying violence that deadens both the perpetrator and the victim, the violence that diminishes the personality and greatly curtails what it means to be a human being on this planet.

And yet violence is not something that I personally have written a great deal about. Although I have explored the subject in a relatively small number of short stories (most gathered in my noir collection Ugly Behaviour), I’m primarily known as a “quiet” horror writer, a writer who focuses on subtle, ghostly effects.

But that changes with my new novel Ubo, out from Solaris in February.

Ubo is a dark science fictional meditation on violence and its origins. During the course of this novel I inhabit the viewpoints of some of history’s most violent figures: Jack the Ripper, Josef Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler among others. I’m not a social scientist, I’m a writer of fiction—I don’t pretend to offer any ingenious new solutions to the issue of human violence. What I do offer is an exploration, a range of eyes and angles through which to view the problem. Perhaps some readers will find their own imaginations triggered, allowing them to view violence in a somewhat different way.

Now trapped in Ubo, Daniel has no idea how long he has been imprisoned by the roaches. Every resident has a similar memory of the journey there: a dream of dry, chitinous wings crossing the moon, the gigantic insects dropping swiftly over the houses of the neighborhood, passing through walls and windows like a magical deck of cards, fanning themselves from one invisible world into the next.

Each day they force Daniel to play a different figure from humanity’s violent history, from a frenzied Jack the Ripper to a stumbling and confused Stalin to a self-proclaimed god executing survivors atop the ruins of the world. The scenarios mutate day after day in this concentration camp somewhere beyond the rules of time. As skies burn and prisoners go mad, identities dissolve as the experiments evolve, and no one can foretell their mysterious end.

Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. His last novel Blood Kin, a southern gothic, won the Bram Stoker Award. His new novel UBO (Solaris, February) is a blend of sf and horror, a meditation on violence featuring such historical viewpoint figures as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, Himmler, and Charles Whitman. A handbook on writing co-authored by his late wife Melanie Tem, Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, will appear soon from Apex books. In 2018 Hex Publishers will publish his middle grade Halloween novel The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack.

 Ubo is available now from Solaris.